Ad Hominem Arguments and the Principle of Charity

Why are “ad hominem” arguments best avoided, especially in online discussion forums.

ad hominem memeMany moons ago, I did my first degree in philosophy, at Aberdeen University, in the northeast of Scotland.  I remember that one of the first things our lecturers explained, very wisely, was how in philosophy we should always criticise the theory and not the person.  In undergraduate philosophy tutorials, especially in debates about applied philosophy, we would have to discuss contentious issues like abortion, animal rights, and nuclear weapons.  We should strive to do that dispassionately, with philosophical objectivity, and without taking offence or attacking other people, even if we’d be shocked by the views they’re stating in the context of ordinary life.

There’s no other way to do philosophy.  If we want to think rationally ourselves, we have to focus on the evidence for and against what people say, and forego criticism of the other person’s character.  Attacking the person stating a theory is well-known as a fallacy.  It’s traditionally called the argumentum ad hominem.  There are many good reasons for avoiding ad hominem attacks.

  • It’s fallacious reasoning.  Criticising the character or actions of someone who holds a theory tells you absolutely nothing about the validity of the theory.  Even the world’s stupidest people have good ideas.  Sometimes bad people say the right things, albeit for the wrong reasons.  Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.  If Hitler said that one plus one equals two, for example, that wouldn’t make it any less true.
  • It’s just not good manners in a philosophical or rational debate.  Especially today, on social media, good etiquette would be to express disagreement dispassionately, without taking offence or offending other people by attacking their character.
  • It’s what I call a “conversation killer” because it prevents rational discourse from continuing.  So it’s really very unphilosophical.  Wise people don’t kill conversations by derailing them with ad hominems.  They try to evaluate what other people say objectively and respond reasonably and politely.
  • It’s usually very presumptuous and tends to involve the fallacy of “mind-reading”.  You don’t really know what the motivations of a stranger on the Internet are.  So jumping to conclusions about what they’re thinking rather than focusing on the validity of what they’ve actually said is really not a good idea.  When we jump to conclusions about other people’s reasons for saying something, I tend to find it says more about our own attitudes than the other person.  There’s some truth in the Freudian-Jungian concept of unconscious “projection”.
  • We should be intellectually humble enough to always remember that the other person might actually turn out to have been right all along.  Think of all the ad hominem attacks against Charles Darwin that portrayed him as a foolish moral-degenerate and the cartoons depicting him as a monkey – the real fools were the people dismissing what he said.  Criticising the other person’s character potentially stops us from realising that what initially seemed false or stupid was actually correct.  Put bluntly, using ad hominems risks making you more stupid.

This is one of my favourite anecdotes about Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism…  One day, Zeno came across an arrogant young intellectual who was discoursing loudly about the philosopher Antisthenes.  (Antisthenes was one of Socrates’ closest friends, and greatly admired by him; his writings were held in very high regard in ancient Greece but none survive today.)  A small crowd had gathered around the young man and he was showing off by doing a hatchet job on Antisthenes, denouncing what he perceived as the shortcomings of his philosophy.  Zeno interrupted him and asked what he’d learned from Antisthenes that was of value, about wisdom or virtue.  The young man said “nothing”.  The story goes that Zeno told him he should be ashamed therefore to have spent so much time and energy picking over the flaws in a philosopher’s writings without first being able to identify what’s actually of value in his writings.  In Zeno’s day, the Platonic Academy became dominated by Skeptics who were adept at nit-picking flaws in any philosophical theory.  The Stoics felt these people risked of turning philosophy into nothing but clever wordplay and losing sight of any ideas that are actually of value.

This is similar (but not identical) to what philosophers today call the Principle of Charity.  The Principle of Charity involves giving other people the benefit of the doubt, assuming they’re not stupid, and interpreting their statements in the most charitable way in terms of the debate.  There’s always some ambiguity about what other people mean, especially on social media.  So if we’re not sure, it’s good etiquette to lean toward the most generous interpretation, i.e., not to assume the worst, but to see what others say in the most rational light.  That would entail not “mind-reading” others, for example, and risking falsely attributing dishonest or stupid motives to them.

Christopher Hitchens ad hominem memeThe philosopher Bertrand Russell, likewise, once said that the ideal way to study another philosopher consists in two distinct stages.  In the first stage, we should be as sympathetic as possible toward their theories, and perhaps even try to find additional reasons to support them.  We should empathise with their position and try to really understand them as deeply as possible.  Once we’ve done that enough, we should enter into the second stage, of criticism, and adopt a more hostile position, in which we identify as many flaws as possible with their theory.  It’s premature to criticise a theory until we’ve attempted to fully understand it.  Many philosophers waste time and energy expounding lengthy criticisms of other philosophers that, on close inspection, just show they didn’t fully understand their theories to begin with.  To some extent misunderstanding is inevitable.  Scholars believe that even Aristotle failed to fully appreciate his master Plato’s teachings, despite having been his most prominent student for many years.  On the other hand, though, at the extreme end of the scale, it’s not unusual to find people who publish long-winded criticisms of books they’ve obviously not read!

There is one exceptional circumstance, nevertheless, where I feel ad hominem criticisms may be legitimate.  When I trained psychotherapists, I often found that people were very strongly invested in particular schools of thought that they’d been previously trained in.  Now there are hundreds of competing psychotherapeutic theories.  They all say different things.  As Arnold Lazarus, one of the pioneers of behaviour therapy once put it: they can’t all be right, but they can all be wrong.

When I first began studying psychotherapy there were still many therapists deeply invested in Freudian theory.  They believed in things like the primacy of the Oedipus Complex, even though no evidence supported this theory.  Psychodynamic therapists believed that their form of therapy was the only effective form of therapy, even though countless research studies provide evidence that conflicted with this claim.  (Actually, it very often seems to be one of the least effective forms of therapy.)  When I pressed these therapists for the reason they believed these things in the face of conflicting evidence they’d often say something along the lines of this: “Freud is widely regarded to be a great psychologist.”  Likewise, in the 1990s, Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) was reaching the peak of its popularity as a fad.  There are also many studies on NLP, which overall show that it is ineffective and certainly does not show the dramatic results its proponents claim.  When I pressed NLP practitioners for the reason they believed in this approach, much like the Freudians (whom they hated!), after lot of prevarication, they would say something like: “Because Bandler’s research shows that it works.”  Richard Bandler, however, never conducted any genuine scientific research into the theories and techniques he developed.  He just published books on them, and trained others to use them, without testing them in clinical trials, etc.

Now, someone who holds pseudoscientific theories will very often attempt to support them by appealing to the perceived authority of the person who developed them.  That’s obviously another fallacy: the appeal to (perceived) authority or argumentum ad verecundiam.  You can try pointing out to them that it’s a fallacy but that often does nothing to dissuade them.  In those cases, if their rationale for holding something to be true is purely based on the character and credentials of someone else, I think it’s legitimate to question whether that’s good evidence.  Doing so may involve questioning the scruples or expertise of the person they’re citing, i.e., questioning their authority.  For example, Freud is certainly famous.  However, he is not highly regarded today as an expert on psychology or psychotherapy.  In fact, Freud conducted no research whatsoever on psychotherapy and only treated a very small number of psychotherapy clients – perhaps less than one hundred in his lifetime whereas most modern therapists treat thousands.  Bandler, likewise, is qualified neither as a psychotherapist nor as a psychologist and has published no scientific research in support of NLP.  His books have been shown to base their arguments on simple scientific errors about neuropsychology.

Now none of those observations necessarily mean that psychoanalysis or NLP are wrong.  They merely throw into question the reliability of the people behind them.  However, in the exceptional case mentioned above, where an individual cites the perceived authority of Freud or Bandler as their sole reason for believing something, I think it’s valid to use something resembling an ad hominem argument.  In that case, though, rather than attacking the character of the speaker, you’d be questioning whether someone they cite as an authority actually has the expertise and reliability they’re attributing to them.  Even so, this is a last resort, because ideally your interlocutor should realise that such appeal to authority is a fallacy to begin with.  It’s especially foolish to use such appeals as a reason to discount scientific evidence that points in a contrary direction.  Unfortunately, it’s still very common for people to think this way, though.

Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy

Article exploring the psychotherapeutic dimension of Spinoza’s philosophy in relation to modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).

Caute-Spinoza-RingSpinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy

– Rational Techniques of Emotional Therapy

(Remedia Affectuum) –

“All things come from One, and are resolved into One.”

– A precept of the Orphic Mysteries, c. 6th Century BC.

NATURE! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her…

– Goethe, Aphorisms on Nature

Who Was Spinoza?

In former centuries, he was one of the most controversial and reviled philosophers in Europe but he is now seen as an intellectual hero of the Enlightenment. Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Holland where, refusing the offer of a prestigious university professorship, he earned his living as a lens-grinder until his untimely death from consumption. Spinoza developed an impressive and visionary metaphysical system, written in technical Latin and drawing together many themes from classical philosophy, which climaxed in a rational psychotherapy and method of personal philosophical enlightenment.

Spinoza is generally considered to be one of the most influential figures in the history of Western philosophy and, along with Descartes and Leibnitz, one of the three great “rationalist” philosophers of the European enlightenment period. His work is perhaps the most imposing example of classical philosophical therapy and pre-empts modern psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), in many important respects. Bertrand Russell called Spinoza, ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’ (1946: 552), and conceded that his grand theory, ‘was magnificent, and rouses admiration even in those who do not think it successful.’ (Russell, 1946: 553). Even someone who cannot accept the whole of Spinoza’s metaphysic, will often feel that his moral and psychological conclusions remain deeply profound, and that includes his psychotherapy as we shall see.

Spinoza was driven to develop a system of therapeutic self-help because of his own “existential” crisis. Though he considered himself Jewish, he had been excommunicated from the faith over his liberal interpretation of scripture, ritually cursed and cut adrift from his community. His published works were condemned as ‘forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil’, and banned from certain Jewish and Christian communities. In an unfinished manuscript on his method of self-improvement, Spinoza refers to his early uncertainty and craving for happiness, hinting at darker experiences of ‘extreme melancholy’, and his inner quest to procure philosophical balm for his troubled mind,

I thus perceived that I was in a state of great peril, and I compelled myself to seek with all my strength for a remedy [or “therapy”], however uncertain it might be; as a sick man struggling with a deadly disease, when he sees that death will surely be upon him […] is compelled to seek such a remedy with all his strength, inasmuch as his whole hope lies therein. (De Intellectus Emendatione, 4-5)

Ironically, this document, like Spinoza’s most important work, The Ethics (or Ethica), was hidden until after his death because of the same threat of religious persecution which forced him to develop his “emotional remedies” in the first place.

Spinoza’s Relevance to Modern Psychotherapy

Human impotence in moderating and controlling the emotions I call slavery. For a man who is enslaved by passions is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune such that he is often forced, though he may see what is better for him, to follow what is worse. (E4, Preface, my translation)

The main reason why Spinoza’s psychotherapy is not currently more popular is probably because modern readers have difficulty with his terminology. For instance, classical philosophers included what we now call “psychotherapy” or “self-help” under the broad heading of “ethics.” Spinoza’s Ethica has little to do with “morality” in the modern sense; it really describes a self-help method, a system of therapy for overcoming negative emotions and cultivating personal enlightenment. As one commentator writes, ‘It picks up ancient debates, where questions about the nature of knowledge and of the ultimate nature of things were integrated with reflection on the mental attitudes required for a well-lived life.’ (Lloyd, 1996: 141).

Those taught that psychotherapy began with Freud are therefore surprised to discover that a definite therapeutic tradition can be traced back through the great Stoic and Epicurean schools to the very ancient teachings of Socrates, and perhaps even Pythagoras (fl. 6th century BC). I will pass over these issues, though, sadly, modern therapists are not usually taught the history of their own field and its close-knit connection with Western philosophy (See my ‘Stoicism as Philosophical Psychotherapy’, Therapy Today, 2005). Suffice to say that Spinoza provides one of the most sophisticated models of philosophical psychotherapy, though he seems heavily indebted to Hellenistic philosophy. Leibnitz dubbed Spinoza as pioneering ‘the sect of the new Stoics’ , and many others have seen him as a “Neo-stoic” in disguise, but I think there is also strong evidence of Epicureanism in his writings. It is perhaps better to consider the possibility that Spinoza was weaving together various influences from ancient and medieval thought into a new philosophical whole. It is no coincidence that he was one of the last great philosophers to write mainly in Latin, and the language itself may be considered a major influence upon his philosophy.

A further obstacle to the modern reader lies in Spinoza’s use of the word “God” to denote the logico-metaphysical absolute from which his system is deduced. Again, brevity forces me to say only that Spinoza’s “God” is very much a philosopher’s God, a pure metaphysical concept, and not at all the insidious anthropomorphism which bewitches the popular imagination. Einstein once said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” (Quoted in Einstein: Science and Religion, Arnold V. Lesikar)

For Spinoza, the whole of existence is, without exception, sacred and divine when considered in its entirety, a position known as “pantheism.” Not surprisingly, his philosophy struck a chord with mystically-inclined poets including Goethe and Wordsworth; and it stoked the ire of frightened, religious bigots who condemned him, somewhat self-contradictorily, as an atheist, heretic, Satanist, and pagan (q.v., Letter LXXIII). He caused an ongoing storm in Europe by referring to Deus sive Natura, ‘God aka Nature’, and indeed his metaphysic can be more credibly presented nowadays by substituting “Nature” for “God.” The fact that I have done so is only likely to offend people ignorant of Spinoza’s professed meaning.

Spinoza’s Philosophy & Psychology

“I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contributions to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things.” (Albert Einstein, quoted in Glimpses of the Great (1930) by G. S. Viereck)

Monism & Pantheism (The Bigger Picture)

Metaphysical Nature (Natura) is the concept of something which exists necessarily, by definition (causa sui). It is absolutely infinite, without borders or limitations in any dimension or sphere of being. It precedes, encompasses and pervades everything. Everything that exists does so by reference to it, and within it. It is the cloth from which everything is cut, the solitary metaphysical ground or substance of all that exists. It is the essence of everything, and all things conceived as a unified whole. When perceived accurately, it is accepted with absolute certainty as perfectly real, a necessary and eternal truth, because, ex hypothesi, its very existence is part of its essence.

By [Nature] I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence. (E1, Definition 6)

If we were to view it as conscious, we would probably want to call it “God”, though doing so may be more trouble than it’s worth. People have therefore vacillated between dubbing Spinoza as “god-intoxicated” on one hand, and an irredeemable atheist on the other: he is, of course, both and neither.

My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests. (George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, 1922: 246)

Spinoza’s metaphysical “Nature” exceeds the vastness of space and time, and the depth of the human imagination. Your body is a tiny, wandering cell within its vast body, your mind a slender and shadowy thought within its cosmic mind. This is Spinoza’s main premise.

For Spinoza, contemplation of the essence of Nature as an “absolutely infinite” metaphysical substance, is the highest philosophical and therapeutic method. The Nobel-prize winning writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, The Spinoza of Market Street, an otherwise flawed effort, describes the euphoric vision of a Spinozist thus,

Yes, the divine substance was extended and had neither beginning nor end; it was absolute, indivisible, eternal, without duration, infinite in its attributes. Its waves and bubbles danced in the universal cauldron, seething with change, following the unbroken chain of causes and effects, and he, Dr. Fischelson, with his unavoidable fate, was part of this. (Singer, 1962: 25)

When asked why he doesn’t attend synagogue, the old scholar replies, “God is everywhere […] In the synagogue. In the marketplace. In this very room. We ourselves are parts of God.” (Singer, 1962: 21).

Pantheism is a philosophy favoured by mystics and ancient religions. Indeed, nowadays, it is tempting to compare Spinoza’s nameless, faceless, infinite God with the Brahman of Hindu vedanta, or the Sunyata of Buddhist metaphysics. Spinoza has therefore been taken as representative of a “perennial philosophy” (philosophia perennis). Aldous Huxley, who wrote a book on the subject, defines the perennial philosophy as, ‘the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.’ (Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, 1946: 9).

To understand ourselves, transient things, and the individual events in life in relation to the whole in this way is to see things, in Spinoza’s celebrated phrase, sub specie aeternitatis; a vision of everything that happens as an aspect of the same timeless essence of Nature. All this heady stuff is probably too much for the purposes of practical psychotherapy, nevertheless it is important to grasp the theoretical context of Spinoza’s techniques, albeit in broad strokes, before proceeding to discuss them -it would be folly to pretend that none of this matters. If I remember rightly, it was upon hearing a reading of Goethe’s beautiful poem on Nature, which paints the material world itself in godlike hues à la Spinoza, that the young Sigmund Freud was inspired to dedicate his life to plumbing the depths of human nature.

Double-Aspect Psychology (Mind-Body Unity)

The philosopher Rene Descartes developed the modern world’s most influential philosophy of psychology, which postulates that mind and matter are two completely distinct substances. In a sense, the theory of “Cartesian dualism” merely confirms a latent tendency in folk-psychology to regard the mind and body as separate objects. Indeed, the same presupposition, deeply engrained in our language, still pervades contemporary psychology and psychotherapy.

However, mind-body dualism was seen as an incoherent theory by almost everyone who stopped to consider its implications in any detail. In the 20th Century, it was fiercely attacked both by existentialists and behaviourists, but it seems to keep boomeranging back into our collective consciousness. The Cambridge philosopher Gilbert Ryle famously dubbed it the “ghost in the machine”, the philosophy of mind received by default in modern society. However, Spinoza studied Descartes closely and was hot on his heels with a counter-argument.

Mind and body are one and the same individual which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, and now under the attribute of [physical] extension. (E2, 21, n.)

I cannot engage further with metaphysics here. I hope it will suffice to say that Spinoza argued, very convincingly, that mind and matter are two side of the same coin. He replaced Descartes’ dual-substance theory of mind with what became known as a dual-aspect theory. Putting things back together is often a wiser strategy than breaking them asunder, especially with regard to the human sense of self.

Modern psychotherapy, CBT in particular, is wont to speak of a cause-effect connection between the body and mind. For instance, that negative cognitions “cause” negative feelings and behaviour. The ghost of Spinoza would object that this seems to be a throwback to Cartesian dualism; there can be no “causal” relationship between body and mind because they are the same thing viewed from two different angles. The relationship between them is “closer than close”, it is one of total union. Hence, it makes no more sense to say that thoughts “cause” emotions and behaviour, or vice versa, than it does to say that the circumference of a circle causes its diameter. You might say that a person worries and gives himself an ulcer, an example of cause-effect between the mind and body. However, I would rather say that his worried brain caused the ulcer, one part of his body causing damage to another, and that his worried mind was just another aspect of the same event.

Spinoza’s Philosophy of Love (Positive Psychology)

Spinoza famously labels the fundamental emotion, which man experiences when he accurately perceives the essence of universal Nature, Amor Dei Intellectualis, the “intellectual love of God.” Given my reservations about Spinoza being miscast as a theologian, I would paraphrase this, in line with his writings, as “the rational, or philosophical, love of Nature.” This is the feeling Einstein claimed motivated most great scientists, a quasi-religious devotion to understanding and contemplating the essence of life and the universe. Moreover, its connection to therapy is that it is both the key to emotional insight and its conclusion, ‘he who understands himself and his emotions loves [Nature], and the more so the more he understands himself and his emotions.’ (E5, 15).

I cannot emphasise enough that contrary also to those who would miscast Spinoza, and philosophy in general, as arid intellectualism, Spinoza’s therapy is essentially founded upon a philosophy of love, one of the dominant themes in the Ethica. Spinoza argues that the ultimate human emotion is an active, rational, love of existence itself and from this descend in turn all other human emotions in fragmentary form. This is the true meaning of “Platonic love” as expressed by Socrates in The Symposium, and the meaning of the very word “philosophy”, which most have forgotten means “love of enlightenment.” Philosophers are essentially lovers of contemplation and the classical quest for wisdom is a labour of love toward apprehension of absolute Nature. Hence, the appeal of Spinoza’s philosophy to great poets becomes most apparent.

The Essence of Psychotherapy

Modern readers of Spinoza must first come to terms with the fact that he envisages a “deductive” model of psychotherapy, in which its essence is inferred from a handful of metaphysical axioms by a process of pure reasoning, i.e., a priori and without experiment or observation; ‘we shall determine solely by the knowledge of the mind the therapies for the emotions.’ (E5, Preface, my translation).

This method proceeds logically but not empirically, so many find it hard to decide whether they consider it “scientific” or not. Deductive arguments of this kind are traditionally considered legitimate proof in mathematics and formal logic, etc. Indeed, the Ethica is styled on the format of Euclid’s Elements, the ancient textbook of geometry, and Spinoza even claims to treat ‘human actions and desires precisely as though I were dealing with lines, planes and bodies.’ (E3, Preface). Nevertheless, it seems peculiar nowadays to contemplate a psychotherapy that has more in common with maths than experimental psychology. Nietzsche, otherwise an admirer, was forced to bewail, ‘that hocus-pocus of mathematical form with which Spinoza encased his philosophy as if in brass.’ (Beyond Good & Evil, §5). In Spinoza’s defence, however, his method seems less absurd to most academic philosophers and many people, including some great scientists, feel it to have borne impressive fruit. As one contemporary philosopher writes,

The style of these works is sparse, unadorned, and yet solemn and imposing; the occasional aphorisms jump from the page with all the greater force, in that they appear as the surprising but necessary consequences of arguments presented with mathematical exactitude. (Scruton, 1986: 19)

Another remarkable consequence of this method is that it entails the assumption that we already possess an innate knowledge of the essence of psychotherapy, albeit in a confused form. Spinoza writes of the therapy of emotions ‘which I think every one experiences, but does not accurately observe nor distinctly see’ (E5, preface). However, Spinoza is a realist in this respect and keen to emphasise that he sees our ability for self-mastery as fairly limited; he only wishes to illustrate the extent to which it is possible, under the right circumstances, to achieve some degree of enlightenment and peace of mind.

The last section of the Ethica, on ‘Human Freedom’, introduces his proof of ‘the path or lifestyle which leads to freedom.’ Spinoza sets out to demonstrate ‘the power of the mind, or of reason’, and ‘the extent and nature of its dominion over the emotions, for their control and moderation.’ (E5, Preface). Believing that he has exposed the essence of philosophical therapy with mathematical certainty, he goes so far as to write,

I have now gone through all the therapies for the emotions, or all that the mind, considered in itself alone, can do against them. (E5, 20 n., my italics)

Spinoza therefore proceeds to summarise the five essential processes in which philosophical psychotherapy consists. These can only be properly understood by reference to Spinoza’s philosophy as a whole but I will attempt a brief outline before proceeding to discuss his more empirical therapy.

Spinoza’s Therapeutic Armamentarium

1. Cognitive Insight into the Emotions. (Cognitive Restructuring)

‘In the actual knowledge [or “cognition”] of the emotions.’

The essence of Spinoza’s psychotherapy is the idea that cognitive insight into the nature of desire and emotion is necessarily therapeutic. Spinoza carefully defines what he means by such knowledge in the Ethica and provides schematic examples. For instance, when specific emotions are understood in the light of his theory of mind, of pain and pleasure, and “active” and “passive” emotion, a cognitive transformation occurs in our experience of them. When we realise that our thinking shapes our emotion we can learn to actively choose rational emotions, rather than being passively swept along by emotions which impose themselves upon us. True knowledge of the emotions also entails an understanding of the extent to which they are founded upon confused (irrational) cognitions and their purification in terms of accurate ideas. This resembles the “cognitive restructuring” of emotion in CBT.

Spinoza defines accurate cognition as occurring, ‘when a thing is perceived solely through its essence, or through the knowledge of its proximate cause [causa proxima]‘ (De Intellectus Emendatione, 8). Some modern philosophers, notably Sir Stuart Hampshire, have argued that this kind of insight prefigures Freud’s development psychoanalytic interpretation. However, Spinoza himself provides many examples of what he means by the essence of emotion and these clearly show that he is referring to insight based on the current cognitive structure of emotion, similar to modern cognitive therapy, and not repressed childhood libidinal attachments, etc., as postulated by psychodynamic therapy. I think Spinoza would say that the childhood antecedents of an adult emotion are no longer part of its essence, but merely its “remote cause”, and therefore understanding them does not constitute the kind of accurate cognition referred to in his therapy; there is, of course, no trace of anything even loosely resembling Freudian interpretation to be found anywhere in his writings.

The feeling that an interpretation is correct, or the supposed recovery of a repressed memory, would be classed by Spinoza as inadequate (hypothetical) knowledge, based upon sensation and imagination, rather than deductive reasoning. Spinoza would also seem to imply that recollection of the historical origin of an emotion provides unreliable knowledge unless we already accurately perceive the essence of the emotion as it exists in the present (q.v., De Intellectus Emendatione, pp. 10-11). As an advocate of the cognitive-behavioural tradition, I would concur. According to a well-known legend, Guatama Buddha said that if we find a man wounded by an archer, there’s no point debating who made the arrow or where it came from, we should set to work immediately removing the arrowhead and repairing the wound. It’s knowledge of the proximate (“maintaining”) causes of suffering that Spinoza thinks we should be concerned about.

2. Separation of Rational Emotion from Imaginary Causes. (ABC Model)

‘In the [mental] separation of the emotions from the idea [“cognition”] of an external cause, which we imagine confusedly.’

Spinoza argues that when emotions are accurately understood we perceive them as determined primarily by our own internal images and ideas rather than by the external “triggers” which we naturally tend to blame them upon. We say “He made me angry”, but it would be more accurate to say, “I made myself angry toward him.” When we stop blaming our feelings on others and take responsibility for them ourselves, we become fundamentally empowered. This is strikingly similar to the idea of ‘cognitive mediation’, or the ABC model, in modern CBT. Indeed, Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, quotes the following passage from Spinoza as one of the chapter mottos in his seminal Cognitive Therapy & the Emotional Disorders (1976).

I saw that all the things I feared, and which feared me had nothing good or bad in them save insofar as the mind was affected by them. (Spinoza, quoted in Beck, 1976:156)

Spinoza writes,

Wherefore the reality 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. […] 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. (De Intellectus Emendatione, 26)

By which I take him to mean that a rational belief is necessarily derived from some active proof and insofar as an idea is experienced as being triggered passively by external events it is irrational. There is no causal relationship between body and mind. Therefore, when we assume that a physical event, including another person’s actions toward us, causes our emotional response we are necessarily in contradiction.

3. The Necessary & Eternal Basis of Rational Emotions.

‘In [the perception of] time, whereby emotions referring to [timeless] things which we distinctly understand overpower those which refer to [transient] things perceived in a confused and fragmentary manner.’

When we accurately understand the essence of a thing we perceive what is constant and unchangeable in it. The truth that the angles of a triangle add up to two right angles is timeless; though triangular shaped things in nature may come and go the concept remains eternally the same. Because reason perceives things in relation to essential truths it gives rise to emotions which are more rational, stable, and powerful.

The more we truly understand people, for example, the less our feelings are swayed by individual appearances and the more rational and constant they become because they are determined by general principles of our philosophy. If I conclude, with Spinoza and Socrates, that people essentially desire happiness that will become a constant factor in my emotional responses, if I have no philosophy of human nature I will respond to each event according to the vagaries of habit and irrational association.

A famous example, but one likely to provoke much misunderstanding: The great Stoic sage Seneca is reputed to have handled his own execution in this way. His former student the emperor Nero -an arch-enemy of philosophy- forced Seneca to fall on his sword (literally). Seneca, the most reasonable man in the world, reputedly calmed his frantic supporters by observing that everyone already knew Nero was a murderer, therefore it should come as no surprise when the time comes for him to murder his opponents. In doing so, however, he was utilising an ancient therapeutic formula derived from philosophy and rhetoric. The same technique is rehearsed by Marcus Aurelius in his journal of meditations,

When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shameless people possible?


Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them.

The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members. […]

Yes, boorish people do boorish things. What’s strange or unheard-of about that? Isn’t it yourself that you should reproach for not anticipating that they’d act this way? (Meditations, 9: 42, Hays)

For Seneca, there could be no anxiety in the face of the inevitable. He knew what to expect from life and from mad emperors, and when Nero’s hired thugs came to put him to death he was serene because he was prepared to meet his fate. (Of course, if there had been an escape route, no doubt Seneca would have taken it.)

For the Stoics, irrational anxiety was always accompanied by a kind of feigned surprise and naïve indignation incompatible with reason and common sense. On the day of his death, Seneca felt the same way about his murderers that he had always felt, because his emotions were based on a long-standing perception of the general situation and not a superficial gut-reaction to the heavy knock on the door of Nero’s guards. If we all know that we must necessarily die, why should death frighten us any more when it is close than when it is far away? This is the “constancy” of the ideal Sage who “never changes his mind”, because his deepest layer of emotion is rooted in a clear and distinct perception of the timeless essence of Nature.

4. The Multiple Causes of Rational Emotion. (Determinism & Empathy)

‘In the multitude of causes whereby emotions are fostered which refer to the common properties of things or to [the essence of Nature itself, which Spinoza calls “God”].’

To understand things rationally is to do so by reference to philosophical principles, and ultimately the essential idea of Nature itself. Instead of responding to individual “triggers” in our environment, which send us hither and thither, our emotions are shaped by the whole structure of our rational world-view. When we see the common properties of things we respond to things in context rather than in isolation and our feelings become balanced and rational. Under this heading, presumably, fall the therapeutic effects of determinism so fundamental to both Spinozism and Stoicism. The last of Spinoza’s example rules of life states,

[…] in so far as we understand, we can desire nothing save that which is necessary, nor can we absolutely be contented with anything save what is true: and therefore insofar as we understand this rightly, the endeavour of the best part of us is in harmony with the order of the whole of nature. (E4, Appendix XXXII)

The more we understand, the more we experience external events as causally determined, and the actions of ourselves and other people as determined by various motives and causes. To understand all is to forgive all. Einstein puts Spinoza’s theory of empathic understanding very neatly in a letter, discussing the Christian rule of life, “love thine enemy”,

I agree with your remark about loving your enemy as far as actions are concerned. But for me the cognitive basis is the trust in an unrestricted causality. ‘I cannot hate him, because he must do what he does.’ That means for me more Spinoza than the prophets. (Einstein, in a letter to Michele Besso (6 January 1948))

Spinoza believed in absolute determinism, and that this assumption in itself conveyed a sense of contentment in lieu of specific causal knowledge. The philosophical Sage’s determinism about life and other people is meant to generate rational equanimity similar to the “unconditional acceptance” of REBT. Therapists may be surprised to find a similar premise in the canon of behaviour therapy but, to some extent, behaviourism and Spinozism are natural allies,

Objectivity, empathy, and sensitivity to suffering are intrinsic to the behaviour therapist’s approach to his patients. The objectivity follows from the knowledge that all behaviour, including cognitive behaviour, is subject to causal determination no less than is the behaviour of falling bodies or magnetic fields. […] To explain how the patient’s neurosis arose out of a combination or chain of particular events helps [empathic] understanding. (Wolpe, 1990: 59)

5. Rational Conditioning of Emotion.

‘Finally, in the capacity for mental self-regulation of the emotions, whereby they are organised and mutually associated with each other.’ (E5, 20, n., my translations )

I have translated this passage to highlight the notion of “emotional self-regulation”, or the rational organisation of one’s thoughts and feelings. The previous methods were techniques of “pure reason” which followed necessarily from cognitive insight into the emotions. Spinoza seems here to acknowledge a range of empirical techniques, whereby the mind can also engineer its habits of thinking so that emotions are conditioned to be associated with each other in a rational and constructive manner. ‘By this power of rightly organising and associating the modifications of the body we can bring out about that we are not easily affected by bad emotions.’ (E5, 10, n.)

This more “empirical” mode of philosophical therapy bears obvious resemblance to techniques and principles found in modern cognitive and behavioural therapies, which we shall now consider.

Empirical Techniques of Philosophical Psychotherapy

5.1 Ordering of Contrary Associations (Reciprocal Inhibition)

Joseph Wolpe adapted Sherrington’s theory of “reciprocal inhibition” in neurology, making it the core mechanism of the Behaviour Therapy developed in the 1960s. As the name indicates, when two mutually exclusive neurological states coincide the most powerful will inhibit the weaker, a phenomenon variously known as “counter-conditioning” or “response competition.” This basic mechanism has many therapy applications, the most typical being the use of physical relaxation to systematically extinguish nervous anxiety.

If a response antagonistic to anxiety can be made to occur in the presence of anxiety-evoking stimuli so that it is accompanied by a complete or partial suppression of the anxiety responses, the bond between these stimuli and the anxiety responses will be weakened. (Wolpe, Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition, 1958: 71)

Although this concept was pre-empted by earlier behaviourists and hypnotherapists, Wolpe believed himself to be the first to make it a central and explicit principle of psychotherapy. Nevertheless, three hundred years before Wolpe, Spinoza made it one of the axioms (E5, A1) underlying his psychotherapy. He concludes that a powerful emotion will suppress a weaker contrary one, including the suppression of fear by mental calm (animi acquiescentia).

An emotion can neither be hindered nor removed save by a contrary emotion and one stronger than the emotion which is to be checked. (E, 4, Prop VII)

However, Spinoza’s “dual-aspect” psychology attempts to resolve the opposition between cognitive and behavioural theories, three hundred years before it became a bone of contention in modern psychotherapy.

5.2 Contemplation of Virtue & the Sage (Covert Modelling)

An ancient philosophical technique consists in contemplating the character of an imaginary wise man, a perfectly enlightened and self-possessed philosopher, the ideal of the Sage. As one modern commentator phrases it,

The Ethics describes the free man, who has risen to the higher levels of cognition, mastered his passions, and reached understanding of himself and the world. (Scruton, 1986: 95).

The Sage is not a real man, of course, nobody is perfect. However, the concept of the Sage is the concept of man-made-perfect and the clear and distinct perception of this goal acts as the moral compass of the philosopher. Spinoza claims that the moral terms “good” and “bad” only have meaning in a relative sense, insofar as ‘we want to form for ourselves an idea of man upon which we may look as a model of human nature’, and we may refer to things which are good or bad at helping us to approach this ideal. (E4, Preface). We may meditate upon the strengths of an ideal Sage, of a real-life hero or role-model, or any strengths manifested by ourselves or others. Contemplation of the Sage resembles, e.g., Cautela’s Behaviour Therapy technique of “covert modelling.”

Though nobody can attain perfect wisdom, ‘meanwhile man conceives a human character much more stable than his own, and sees that there is no reason why he should not himself acquire such a character.’ This character consists in rational love and ‘the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.’ (De Intellectus Emendatione, 6). Spinoza refers to the work of approaching this ideal as a “purification” of the intellect, the original philosophical meaning of katharsis, the effect of which is supreme peace of mind,

[…] the Sage, insofar as he is considered as such, is scarcely disturbed in mind: but being conscious of himself, of [Nature], and of things, by a certain eternal necessity, he never ceases to be, but possesses eternally true peace of mind (acquiescentia). (E5, 47, Note)

In relation to this, Spinoza observes that in conditioning the mind by means of mental imagery, the focus of our attention should always be upon the pleasant qualities we wish to cultivate and not the unpleasant ones we seek to avoid.

But we must note, that in arranging our thoughts and conceptions we should always bear in mind that which is good in every individual thing, in order that we may always be determined to action by an emotion of pleasure. (E5 P10, Note)

This conclusion follows from Spinoza’s observation that we cannot imagine something as absent without imagining its presence unless we focus our mind on a contrary idea with which it is mutually exclusive. This is a basic axiom of modern hypnotherapy. The clichéd example being the obvious difficulty in obeying the command “Don’t imagine an elephant!” in response to which most people will do just the opposite and picture one. More importantly, if we focus on problems, we risk becoming engrossed in them,

For instance, if a man sees that he is too keen in the pursuit of honour, let him think over its right use, the end for which it should be pursued, and the means whereby he may attain it. Let him not think of its misuse, and its emptiness, and the fickleness of mankind, and the like, whereof no man thinks except through a morbidness of disposition; with thoughts like these do the most ambitious most torment themselves, when they despair of gaining the distinctions they hanker after, and in thus giving vent to their anger would fain appear wise. Wherefore it is certain that those who cry out the loudest against the misuse of honour and the vanity of the world, are those who most greedily covet it. (E5 P10, Note)

The inability of the senses to represent absence (or “non-being”) without imagining presence also explains the importance of reciprocal inhibition in psychotherapy. To remove anxiety, we imagine the presence of calm and relaxation, a positive and contrary state, rather than merely trying to imagine the absence of fear.

Thus he who would govern his emotions and appetite solely by the love of freedom strives, as far as he can, to gain a knowledge of the virtues and their causes, and to fill his spirit with the joy which arises from the true knowledge of them: he will in no wise desire to dwell on men’s faults, or to carp at his fellows, or to revel in a false show of freedom. (E5 P10, Note)

This is undoubtedly related to Spinoza’s striking rejection of the Socratic meditation upon death (melete thanatou): ‘A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.’ (E4, 17).

The contemplation of virtue in general, whether that means seeing the best in others or visualising the ideal Sage, prepares us with a repertoire of vivid and lively images which are ready-to-hand and can be used counteract negative emotions in the future by “reciprocal inhibition.”

5.3 Mental Fortitude (Ego-Strength)

Spinoza famously argues that the desire for self-preservation (conatus) is the very essence of man. (Another point best understood by reference to his writings.) The power of the mind to act freely and autonomously in accord with reason, love, and self-interest is therefore the essence of human excellence. In this respect, Spinoza appears to follow the connotation of the Latin word for virtue (virtus) which can also mean strength, courage, or vitality, ‘by virtue and power I understand the same thing.’ (E4, D8). He therefore argues that “strength of mind” (animi fortitudo), a kind of basic strength of character closely-knitted to the rational love of existence, is the primary human “virtue.” (We still speak today of someone’s “strengths” or their forte.) For Spinoza, virtue in this (pre-Christian) sense cannot logically co-exist with suffering (pathos); as the ancient saying goes: “The good man is always happy.” Indeed, he is happy, healthy, loving, rational, and empowered. Spinoza’s ideal of mental fortitude is obviously comparable to concepts such as “self-efficacy” or “ego-strength” in modern psychotherapy and with certain concepts in the field of Positive Psychology.

He also divides mental strength, or virtue, into two principal modes of active and rational emotion: animositas et generositas. The technical meaning is difficult to translate, but it is clear from his comments that animositas (“love of life”?) denotes the virtue of rational self-interest or egotism, and generositas (“love of mankind”?) that of rational social-interest or altruism. For Spinoza, seen through the lens of his philosophy, these two basic drives are not in conflict but complementary; they can therefore easily be compared to the notions of rational self-interest and social-interest in Ellis’ REBT.

5.4 The Rules of Life (Positive Cognitions)

In common with the Stoics and other ancient therapeutic schools, Spinoza recommends that simple philosophical principles, the “rules of living” (vitæ dogmata), should be internalised by repeated memorisation.

The best thing then we can bring about, as long as we have no perfect knowledge of our emotions is to conceive some right manner of living or certain rules of life, to commit them to memory, and to apply them continuously to the particular things which come in our way frequently in life, so that our imagination may be extensively affected by them and they may be always at hand for us. (Spinoza, Ethics, V.10.n.)

Of course, they are also comparable to the positive cognitions, coping statements, self-statements, etc., of modern CBT, or to the affirmations and autosuggestions of the hypnotherapists.

In Graeco-Roman philosophical therapy such maxims seem to have been designed to function as an aide memoire or mnemonic. They often take the form of a short, pithy sentence of which the famous inscriptions (“Know thyself”, “Nothing in excess”) at the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi were perhaps the most famous. Spinoza gives the following example. One of the rules of life suggested by the Ethica is that hatred is best met with love and the virtue of social-interest (generositas) and not requited with hatred. Spinoza recommends that we meditate on philosophical “rules” that say,

• Our true advantage lies in cultivating love not hatred within ourselves.

• Mutual friendship is a valuable good in life.

• True peace of mind results from the rational way of life.

• Men act by the necessity of their nature in causing offence, just like any force of nature. (E5, P10, Note)

When these ideas and their implications are borne in mind they counteract, or at least weaken, excessive anger associated with the perceived offence by determining our emotions rationally, through a complex of positive and empowering mental associations.

5.5 The Premeditation of Misfortunes (Imaginal Exposure)

Spinoza pre-empts several key notions found in Behaviour Therapy. Perhaps most fundamentally, he clearly identifies, under another name, the role of classical (Pavlovian) conditioning principles in psychotherapy,

If the human body has once been affected by two or more bodies [i.e., physical stimuli] at the same time, when the mind afterwards imagines any of them, it will straightway remember the others also. (E2, P6)

One of the cardinal techniques both of ancient and modern psychotherapy is that in which a person visualises distressing events, usually one’s to be faced in the near future, while mentally rehearsing more positive and rational beliefs and the emotions and actions that accompany them. The Stoics called this premeditatio malorum, preparing the mind in advance, by contemplative meditation, to cope well with misfortune. The Stoic writings of Seneca, e.g., provide many examples of the therapeutic use of premeditation. In modern CBT many variations of the same basic concept are found and referred to as imaginal exposure, covert rehearsal, rational-emotive imagery, etc.

Hence, Spinoza suggests that we mentally prepare for the typical problems that people are likely to encounter in life by rehearsing belief in our philosophical and therapeutic “rules of life.” Spinoza uses the two cardinal virtues of his philosophy, self-interest and social-interest, as examples. First he explains how social-interest (generositas) can be developed by rehearsing the relevant philosophical maxims in the Ethica,

For example, we stated among the rules of life that hatred must be overcome by love or [compassion and social-interest], not requited by reciprocated hatred. But in order that this rule may be always at hand for us when we need it, we must often think of and meditate on the common types of harm done to men, and in what manner and according to what method they may best be avoided through [compassionate social-interest]. For thus we unite the image of the harm done to the imagination of this rule, and it will always be at hand when harm is done to us. (Ethics, V.10.n.)

Spinoza adds “if the anger which arises from the greatest injuries is not easily overcome, it will nevertheless be overcome, although not without a wavering of the mind, in a far less space of time than if we had not previously meditated on these things.” From anger he proceeds to discuss the conquest of fear by means of the cardinal virtue of self-interest (animositas),

We must think of [courage and self-interest] in the same manner in order to lay aside fear, that is, we must enumerate and often imagine the common perils of life and in what manner they may best be avoided and overcome by mindfulness (animi præsentia) and [courageous self-interest]. (Ethics, V.10.n.)

In other words, Spinoza recognises a kind of classical conditioning in the memorisation of positive beliefs and their repeated association with the mental image of challenging situations in a way that pre-empts the use of Systematic Desensitisation and mental rehearsal in modern cognitive and behavioural therapies.


It behoves a simple introduction of this kind to end by citing Spinoza’s famous and oft-quoted conclusion to the Ethica,

If the road I have shown to lead to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered. And clearly it must be hard when it is so seldom found. For how could it be that if salvation were close at hand and could be found without difficulty it should be neglected by almost all? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare. (E5, Prop 42 n.)

The way of the Spinozistic Sage is indeed a road less travelled. However, the earlier section on emotional therapy concludes on a more encouraging note; if the path is difficult, the steps are not,

Whosoever will diligently observe and practise these precepts (which indeed are not difficult) will verily, in a short space of time, be able, for the most part, to direct his actions according to the commandments of reason. (E5, 10, n.)

I have presented Spinoza’s conclusions only, in very summary form, and not his deductive “proofs.” I strongly encourage readers to study the Ethica for themselves. As he himself implores his readers, ‘not to reject as false any paradoxes he may find here, but to take the trouble to reflect on the chain of reasoning by which they are supported.’ (De Intellectus Emendatione, 17). In a sense, as I hope you will see, the process of grappling with Spinoza’s ideas, is itself the fundamental technique of his psychotherapy. Nevertheless, I hope that I have shown something of the relevance of Spinoza to modern therapists and whet their appetite for his philosophy.


Damasio, Antonio (2004). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, & the Feeling Brain. Vintage Books.

Deleuze, Gilles (1970). Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Light Books

Hampshire, Stuart (2005). Spinoza & Spinozism. Oxford: OUP

Lloyd, Genevieve (1996). Spinoza & the Ethics. Oxford: Routledge.

Robertson, Donald (2005). ‘Stoicism as Philosophical Psychotherapy’, Therapy Today, July, 2005.

Scruton, Roger (1986). Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP

Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1962). The Spinoza of Market Street. Middlesex: Penguin.