Spinoza and the Equality of Women

Copyright Margaret Gullan-Whur and Theoria

Published in Theoria Vol. LXVIII 2002 Part 2

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Abstract   On the last page of A Political Treatise Spinoza denies that women are subject to men by convention only. He excludes females from participation in politics on the grounds that they are “by nature … necessarily” (that is, by the logical and causal necessity which are for him equivalent) unequal to men “in strength of mind and intellectual ability”. This claim is examined in relation to four of Spinoza’s foundational principles. It is found to be in tension with all four, and with the psychological, social, political and moral deductions Spinoza makes from them, and is moreover an internally weak argument.

 1. Spinoza’s indictment of the female intellect

On the last page of A Political Treatise Spinoza denies women political rights on three grounds.

(1) Women are, like servants and children, subject to men:

… absolutely everyone who is bound only by the laws of his country, and is otherwise independent, and who leads a decent life, has the right to vote in the supreme council and to undertake offices of state. … I added ‘and is otherwise independent’, to exclude women and servants, who are subject to their husbands and masters.2

(2) Women are not, by nature, the mental equals of men:

…. if nature had made women equal to men, and had given them equal strength of mind and intellectual ability [But] … I am fully entitled to assert that women have not the same right as men by nature …3

I quote Spinoza at some length on this major claim shortly.

(3) Women are apt to seduce men into making irrational political decisions:

A king that is prey to lust often manages everything to suit the whim of some concubine or catamite … If we also consider human passions, and consider that men generally love women out of mere lust, judge their ability and wisdom by their beauty, are highly indignant if the women show the slightest favour to others, and so on, we shall easily see that it is impossible for men and women to govern on equal terms without great damage to the peace.4

These views are roughly those of Spinoza’s seventeenth-century contemporaries. Even Van den Hove, most radical political reformer in the Dutch Republic where Spinoza lived, confined political rights to a stratum of independent citizens and specifically excluded the dishonourable, the insane, servants, day-labourers, children – and women.5 The general view was that women were mentally unfit for theorising or rational decision-making. In Malebranche’s opinion “the delicacy of the brain fibres” in women meant that “everything abstract is incomprehensible to them”.6

Yet the ground-breaking republic of the United Provinces of The Netherlands nurtured women who were shrewd and outstanding scholars, as Descartes and More testify.7 Given that Spinoza must have known of these erudite females living near him, and is moreover said to have been taught Latin and Greek by a Dutch girl of ten or twelve years old,8 his refusal to allow that any woman’s intellect could match a man’s, is odd. Note that we cannot prise emotional or political level-headedness apart from intellectual capacity when unpacking the term equal strength of mind and intellectual ability, since for Spinoza general reasonableness and strength of character is solely the product of reasoning intellectually.9

However, Spinoza’s indictment of female rationality in A Political Treatise has received little serious criticism. Rodis-Lewis concludes that he did not exclude women on principle; that his judgement on women was “dated” and that he would have revised it had he lived longer.10 Rice, discussing Spinoza’s account of human sexuality, merely cites others who agree with him that “Like most pre-nineteenth-century thinkers, his explicit remarks tend to reflect a somewhat less than critical acceptance of the sexual norms of his time.”11 I am prepared to accept such somewhat less than critical acceptance of Spinoza’s deprecation of women with respect to his pejorative use of the term womanish12, a standard expression in the old Latin of Cicero and Terence which, in reflecting an abiding cultural prejudice, may have been unthinkingly used. But the Political Treatise passage is an argument claiming to affirm a metaphysical principle that justifies a strong type claim about the class ‘human female’. It thus warrants neither charity nor neglect.

 2. The Political Treatise argument

Wernham’s translation is considered more accurate than Elwes’s, so I use it, but Spinoza’s Latin does not authorise Wernham’s use in the final line below of the word “inferior” with regard to women. Elwes more accurately translates sed eas viris necessario cedere as “necessarily give way to men”.

But perhaps someone will ask whether it is by nature or by convention that women are subject to men. For if this is due solely to convention, I have excluded women from the government without any reasonable cause. However, if we consult actual experience, we shall see that it is due to their weakness. For nowhere has there been any instance of men and women ruling together; but wherever we find men and women, we find that the men rule and the women are ruled, and that on this basis both sexes live in harmony. (The Amazons, who are said by legend to have ruled in days gone by, are no exception to this statement; for they would not allow men to stay in their native land, but used to rear females only and to kill the males they had borne.) Yet if nature had made women equal to men, and had given them equal strength of mind and intellectual ability, in which human power and therefore human right mainly consists, surely among so many different nations some would be found where both sexes ruled on equal terms, and others where the men were ruled by the women and brought up in such a manner that they had less ability. But since this has nowhere happened, I am fully entitled to assert that women have not the same right as men by nature, but are necessarily inferior to them.13

Any notion that Spinoza unthinkingly accepts the assumptions of his day is dispelled in the first two sentences. After denying that the prevailing view of women is due to cultural conditioning, he offers empirical justification for his belief that women are subject to men by virtue of their female nature. He cites just one supporting instance, that of the all-female warrior nation of Amazons, under whose rule male-female harmony was impossible because males were not permitted to live. Spinoza is here countering Hobbes’s assertion (made in a well-publicised reply to Grotius) that the Amazonian regime best reflected the real power of nature since, without a social contract, “in the condition of meer Nature” …. “the Dominion is in the Mother”.14

This appeal to apocryphal experience15 is Spinoza’s only apparent justification for indicting female rationality. He denies excluding women without any reasonable cause (nulla … ratio nos coegit). But is his judgement reasoned, that is, the result of deductive inference, as his definition of reason as intellection demands?16 He seems on first reading to have consulted experience alone, rather than, as he usually does, calling on experience only to confirm a priori deductions.

However, a closer look at the argument reveals that Spinoza could in fact be proceeding typically. For, in claiming that women are necessarily mentally weaker than men, he invokes the logical and causal necessity which are for him equivalent, and which dictate the laws of nature.17 His appeal to the ideal in scientific explanation favoured by Hobbes and Descartes will have been instantly recognised by his readers. In Ethics he constantly demonstrates through reasons how one thing must be the logically necessary consequence of another, claiming for example that real divisions in extension would be a contradiction, and speaking of a principle or primary cause that can be inferred or perceived through some attribute”.18 Rebuking Robert Boyle for sloppy inductive conclusions, he denies that the source of the motion of particles can be confirmed by chemical or any other experiments, but only by demonstration and by calculating.19 As used by Spinoza the cause/ reason equation constitutes a principle of sufficient reason. There is a reason, representing an actual cause, for the existence of anything. There is also, for him, a reason for the non-existence of a thing: this is due to the logical causation which dictates that [p]6 not q, and is his explanation of why things are determinedly, not contingently, absent from the world.20

Thus, in claiming that women are necessarily mentally weaker than men, Spinoza signals that he is refuting Hobbes by making a counter-claim about some natural feature or features that women either do or do not, through natural necessity, have. His contemporaries will also have recognised his metaphysical equivalence of human power with human right. This origin of this equation lies in Ethics, but is reintroduced to striking practical effect in A Theologico-Political Treatise and A Political Treatise.21

A further significant function of the Amazon evidence should also be noted. Matheron, one of few Spinoza scholars to examine Spinoza’s Political Treatise claim about women in relation to his basic metaphysic, toys with allowing him the hypothesis that if women were economically independent they would be suitable participants in political life. But Matheron admits that Spinoza blasts away this possibility by implying that the laws of nature expressed in the real power relations between men and women decree that if women were given political rights they would abuse them.22 Indeed, it is clear that by describing how the only female society believed to have had full political control handled it irrationally, Spinoza refutes in advance any suggestion that if women were free they would be mentally equal to men.

The Political Treatise argument appears in a work devoted to practical politics, and is shrouded in a veneer of pragmatic justification in which its metaphysical commitment may be missed. Also, while scant and weakly supported empirically, it contains no internal contradiction:

[1] If nature had made women equal to men .. among so many different nations some would be found where both sexes ruled on equal terms, and others where the men were ruled by the women and brought up in such a manner that they had less ability.

[2] This has nowhere happened.

[3] [Therefore] women have not the same right as men by nature, but are necessarily inferior to them (must necessarily give way to them).

But does Spinoza really want to stand by a syllogism which, albeit valid, is in tension with the doctrine in which he claims all truth is grounded? Dutch philosophers have most noticeably condemned this page by nicknaming it the “black page”, yet many of them find it consistent with his Ethics doctrine. Klever, whose paper title translates as “A Black Page?” considers it a straightforward extrapolation from Spinoza’s “might is right” doctrine, and further believes Spinoza is absolutely correct; that in the real world of politics the sexual tensions and outcomes he describes just do happen. Spinoza is describing “a natural fact” about women. Klever proposes in his 1992 paper that the holding of political office by women is very recent, geographically limited, and may yet prove catastrophic. We may be on the brink of sexual conflict as envisaged by Spinoza, in which our Utopia may “vanish like snow in the sun”.23 Miriam van Reijen reads the passage as a corollary of the Ethics doctrine that human reason is frail in everyone. She thinks it shows Spinoza treating men and women even-handedly, and addressing the topic of women’s participation in politics with precisely the non-evaluative realism he premises in his introduction to Ethics Part 3, and again in the Political Treatise. She concludes that if we find his view dismal, faulty or unpleasant that is just our imagination or evaluation at work.24

However, I contend that neither the validity of Spinoza’s syllogism nor its conclusion’s potential for testing can rescue Spinoza from contradicting the metaphysical basis of Ethics. If the “black page” claim is accepted then Spinoza the political pragmatist has proved the Spinoza of Ethics wrong.

I now defend this contention by examining the Political Treatise claim in relation to four features of the doctrine with which, as Spinoza emphasises in the early chapters of A Political Treatise,25any Spinozistic extrapolation must cohere.

111. Tensions between Spinoza’s view of women and four of his foundational principles.

III.1 Principle of the mind as the idea of the body

For Spinoza, any mind is the idea of a particular body, and any specific mental state is correlated with a specific physical state:

In just the same way as thoughts and ideas are connected in the mind, so the affections of the body, or images of things are ordered and connected in the body.

Spinoza’s doctrine therefore allows for differences in female mentality reflecting differences in female bodies. In so far as a woman’s body differs from that of a man, the mind must differ accordingly. This aspect of Spinoza’s theory of mind is compatible with the theory of gynaecological hysteria held in his day,26 and also with the modern view that male and female bodies differ physiologically (in chromosomal make-up) and, with more variation, chemically, in the balance of hormone levels that determine many secondary sexual characteristics, including behaviour. Spinoza thus supplies a metaphysical infrastructure for a mentality which is to some extent exclusively female. Should a deficit or disturbance of the rational faculty in females be found by a completed science to correlate with some inevitable and specifically female physiological state, Spinoza’s claim would turn out to be non-pejorative.

Matheron scours Spinoza’s texts for a metaphysical explanation of a female trait making men prey to lust, prone to superstition and susceptible to passion, and finds a note in the early Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect which says that if we understand nothing about the cause except what we consider in the effect … Then the cause is explained only in very general terms, e.g. Therefore there is something, therefore there is some power etc. in the cause.27 Matheron holds that for Spinoza there really is “something”, some essential power in female nature which disadvantages women in the game of power relations, and leads, if they take part in it, to keeping all members of the human race under the rule of passion.28 Although he thinks Spinoza exaggerates the role of women in political intrigue, he accepts his thesis.

However, crucially for my contention, Spinoza does not make the moderate assertion that there is sometimes, in some women, a deficit in rationality. His Political Treatise claim entails that any man is necessarily more rational than any woman; that the judgements of any woman, however manifestly guided by adequate (complete, true) ideas, are inevitably flawed because they fall under some sub-law of necessary weakening by inadequate (partial or false) ideas. This strong type claim is not intuitively acceptable, and is also unlikely to be upheld by science since (as examples in Section III.4 will show) the results of recent studies of physical sex differences correlating with specific mental states or behaviour, despite coming close to corroborating Spinoza’s view, allow exceptions.

Let us see what the metaphysical doctrine of Ethics entails regarding mental gender distinctions. This is the concern of Genevieve Lloyd, who addresses the topic of sexual difference in Spinozistic minds with great sensitivity. Lloyd stresses that while for Descartes a mind is distinct in substance from the body with which it interacts, so is not in itself sexually differentiated, for Spinoza minds and bodies are identical in substance, and mental states reflect physiological states, so that “sexual differences can reach right into the mind.”29 Lloyd points out that such differences are not uniform, since

“Spinozistic minds reflect … the multi-facetedness of bodies. They can be alike in some ways, different in others, reflecting the sameness and differences of the bodies of which they are ideas”.30

In Lloyd’s view Spinoza posits no “underlying essence of femaleness” since minds also reflect the sexual “socialisation” manifested in posture, gesture and activity.31 For her, Spinoza takes “seriously both sex differences and power”, but holds that

“the powers of bodies can in principle always be extricated from the contingent social wholes in which they are embedded, to form new social wholes that may better enhance their powers – as well, of course, as creating ever new possibilities of suppression and oppression.”32

Lloyd believes that because “Spinozistic minds rest their self-esteem on knowing their status as ideas of bodies of a sufficiently complex structure to allow the formation of the common notions of reason”,33 the real but variable and changeable sexual differences in our minds do not amount to radical difference. We cannot, Cartesian-wise, transcend our bodily differences, but we have enough mental and physical commonality to share affinities.34

Here, Lloyd is defending the Spinozistic position on sexual mental difference entailed by the argument of Ethics Part 2, which prioritises a general human nature underlying male and female differences. This thesis, preferred by most Spinoza scholars, preserves what Lloyd calls “a shared human nature that transcends difference” and “aims at achieving commonalities”.35 However, while Lloyd captures in detail the import of the Ethics doctrine, the aberrant thesis in the Political Treatise undoubtedly endorses a privileged male perspective. 36 This standpoint cannot, as Lloyd claims, be wholly assigned to Spinoza’s recognition of social obstruction37 since, as seen above, Spinoza is emphatic that women are by nature, not by culture, mentally weaker than men and incapable of taking part in government. According to Spinoza’s “black page” indictment of female mentality, women’s minds just are radically different from men’s. We are stuck, resist the situation as we may, with a Political Treatise premise of a destructive female essence and a generalised inequality of mind – a strong type-claim in which some sub-law of nature subverts the logical implication of a more general, more plausible law concerning the relation of minds to bodies.

Moreover, in postulating a necessary, determined mental inequality allowing no exception, the sub-law stands in conflict with the principle of epistemic equality Spinoza wants to exploit when he moves on from his theory of mind to his theory of truth and human knowledge in Ethics Part 2. This is the principle noted by Lloyd as allowing “the formation of the common notions of reason.” It is the abundance of common properties in human bodies that dictates the laws of human nature and guarantees our knowledge of them, and it is on this basis alone that Spinoza argues for the common nature of ethnic groups wrongly judged diverse ‘races’:

… it is not peoples but individuals that nature creates, and individuals are only divided into peoples by diversity of language, laws and customs … all men [i.e. individuals] have one and the same nature: it is power and culture which mislead us.38

It is this thesis, with its implication of human equality by nature that Spinozists see as offering hope for human harmony. Nails, for example, writing about the oppression of black women under apartheid policy, claims that for Spinoza, since there are

“no natural individuals outside substance .. there is no reason a priori to take the culture (or the species, or the cell, or the person, or the gender, or the household, or the class) to be one’s foundational unit of analysis. Indeed, to take any of these as fundamental is to distort the interconnections between them which is characteristic of them.”39

Women’s bodies must not be claimed to differ so greatly from men’s that they become the “foundational unit of analysis”, so excluding females from participation in the epistemological scheme that allows reasoned human agreement and mutual respect.

III.2 Principle of common notions

We cannot overestimate the importance of this principle for Spinoza. He claims: Philosophy is based on common notions, and must be built on the study of nature alone.40 He argues in two stages that the ideas human minds have in common are true because they reflect common elements in the bodies of which they are the ideas. His first claim seems tautological and trivial:

What is common to all things, and is equally in the part as in the whole, does not constitute the essence of any singular thing.41

But it has ontological weight. In an early text Spinoza explains that for him a universal essence is not a universal in the traditional sense of an abstraction: a common property consists in real instantiations in nature, and has no meaning if separated from them. Spinoza is thus a nominalist, holding that causal/rational explanations demonstrate necessary connections between real things.42

Above all it is necessary for us always to deduce all our ideas from physical things, or from the real beings, proceeding, as far as possible, according to the series of causes, from one real being to another real being, in such a way that we do not pass over to universals and abstractions.43

Thus, because the mind is the idea of the body,

There are certain ideas, or notions, common to all men. For all bodies agree in certain things.44

Spinoza next claims that common notions are necessarily true.

Those things which are common to all, and which are equally in the part and in the whole, can be conceived only adequately. …. Notions which explain those things common to all are conceived without any relation to time [and duration], but under a certain aspect of eternity.45

It is axiomatic for Spinoza that ideas are true because they agree with their objects, and the object of idea constituting the human mind is the body.46 A common idea reflects a universal body state and so expresses a law of nature.

This doctrine of common notions is clearly not Cartesian,47 but it involves the same degree of certainty. Spinozistic common notions have the status of axioms and are the foundations of our reasoning: accurate deductions made from them are also adequate.48 They are in all human minds (and in other minds with precisely similar body features) and reveal undeniable truths not only of bodies, but of social, psychological, ethical and political matters.

Anyone who wishes to make men believe or dissent anything which is not self-evident must win their assent by deducing his doctrine from common ground. … [Jesus’s] mind had to be attuned to beliefs and concepts common to the human race, i.e. to notions which are universal and true.49

Noble prospects for this principle’s beneficial consequences conclude Ethics Part 4, and many who reject Spinoza’s metaphysic as a whole find this aspect of it impressive. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge concurred, “How can common truths be made permanently interesting but by being bottomed on our common nature?”50

Spinoza does not say anywhere that human minds have equal mental power, or that the blessedness of adequate knowledge is for more than a few. Yet, as Lloyd stresses, Spinoza implies in Ethics that the benefits of reason are in principle available to all. Although men are not all determined by nature to act in accordance with the rules and laws of reason51, in Ethics Part 4 Spinoza suggests that strenuous efforts should be made to help all people reason. We can best show how much our skill and understanding are worth by educating men so that at last they live according to the command of their own understanding.52

However, it seems pointless to educate women, since something in female nature necessarily obscures common truths in all women – to a woman.

Does Spinoza really mean to exclude half the human race, on grounds of sexual difference, from the ethical programme whose universality he impresses? If females cannot implement the common rules of reason53 then the psychological and social theories of Ethics Parts 3 and 4 are irrelevant to them, the hope of blessedness of Part 5 is for men only, and the value of beliefs and concepts common to the human race, i.e. to notions which are universal and true54 is voided. In sum, the principle of common notions collapses.

III.3 Principle of implicit adequate ideas

What anyway, does recognising a common notion, or a common notion’s being a clear and distinct in the mind, mean? If these ideas are truly common, by definition parts of the fabric of all human minds, how can any human being be ignorant of them?

The esoteric Spinozistic principle I call the principle of implicit adequate ideas was repudiated by A.E. Taylor, who held that Spinoza’s claim that certain ideas are necessarily adequate in all human minds cannot be reconciled with his statements that such ideas just are not clear in all minds. For example, Taylor says, Spinoza claims that the idea of God is always present in everyone,55 but also that most human beings live at the level of imagination, judging God to be of the same nature as themselves, a kind of supernatural man consisting of a body and a mind, and subject to passions.56 The adequate idea of God that has always been in them is therefore “inoperative”,57 making Spinoza’s claim incoherent.

My worry is not Taylor’s. Spinoza’s claim is not that common notions must be explicitly recognised in all minds, but that they exist, at least implicitly or latently, in all minds. In a thesis bearing some similarity to Socrates’s faith in the Meno slave boy’s latent reasoning ability, he says a further step is needed to bring them to consciousness.58 Common notions are not intuited: to grasp them we must regard a number of things at once, to understand their agreements, differences and oppositions.59 Relating the singular to the general in this way reveals the distorting effects of subjectivity and anthropocentrism, so facilitating a recognition of the common truths of reason. This will happen, for example, as Spinoza explains, in relation to our misguided idea of God.60 But this process requires considerable active thought, as does the next stage:

… to deduce points from intellectual notions alone usually requires a long string of propositions, as well as the greatest caution, insight, and restraint – all of which are rarely met with in human beings.61

Not everyone is capable of fully understanding the common notions for, despite being equally in all human minds, they are clear and distinct only to those who have no prejudice 62 – those in whom they are not overlaid by the inadequate ideas of random experience, opinion, imagination or emotion.

My worry is not the plausibility of implicit adequate ideas but Spinoza’s thoroughgoing banning of certain sub-classes of human beings from participating in the rational procedure involved in grasping them. Over and above the Political Treatise indictment of women, he excludes in Ethics the common people or mob (vulgus) – the ignorant masses who live through imagination, opinion and passion63 – and also madmen and young children.64 All these types are deemed radically irrational. Yet a single counter-example found in each of these groups is sufficient to unsettle his claim. Some idiots and infants can grasp simple general truths, e.g. that screaming gets attention, and that objects heavier than air fall. Idiots savants may make amazing mathematical calculations, and some toddlers are capable of thinking rationally. Within the class vulgus will be some who are ignorant only because they lack practice in rational discourse. Certainly there will be counter-examples among the class ‘human female’. Let us deal the coup de grace right now:- since some grown men just are severely disadvantaged, for example by insanity – Spinoza’s claim that, as a matter of natural necessity, no woman at all is the rational/intellectual equal of a man, is plainly false.

At this point we may wonder if a formal argument against the Political Treatise’s indictment of the female intellect is needed. However, in my view three hundred years of silence, patronising or scholarly squeezing of a ludicrous claim into the glass slipper of the Ethics doctrine says it is.

While Spinoza the political pragmatist makes women a special case in which an inevitable lack of power/right exceeds that of any male, the Spinoza of Ethics caters for the possibility that some women’s grasp of the common rules of reason may surpass that of many men. The principle of the mind as the idea of the body is consistent with the notion that mental states reflect individual and changeable organic states. A mind can be ‘on the blink’ as physiological or chemical states alter. Indeed in both Ethics and the political works Spinoza sanctions a token obliteration of the registering of adequate ideas, allowing that minds usually ruled by ideas of sense perception may occasionally ‘see reason’, while minds normally ruled by reason may with regard to this or that idea function insanely or childishly:

Fevers and other corporeal changes are causes of madness ..65 … even the most resolute and upright of men falter on occasion, and allow themselves to be overcome by their passions, especially when strength of mind is needed most.66

This weaker token-token thesis exploits Spinoza’s principle of implicit adequate ideas in an intuitively acceptable way, and allows his doctrine of the obscuring of latent adequate ideas by inadequate ones extension to each and every human being.

Spinoza’s “black page” type-claim is now clearly beyond rescue. However, a final metaphysical principle, grounded in Ethics but developed in A Political Treatise, shows how political pragmatism can distort states of affairs through its reliance on inductive conclusions, and suggests that Spinoza was finally seduced by this practice.

III.4 Principle of mental bondage by passion

Spinoza’s indictment of female mentality could be construed as meaning that women have the same chance of recognising common notions as men, but just are more likely than men to let them be confused by sensual or emotional ideas. He does not, we know, say this on the “black page”. He says women are necessarily more irrational/unreasonable/emotional than any man. But let us press the connection between the Ethics doctrine and empirical generalisation and see how the slide into pragmatism could have come about.

In its most general form this fourth principle embodies Spinoza’s belief that no human being is rational at all times. Even while proposing a social contract based on the reasoned consent of all,67 he doubts that such a contract is feasible, due to passion’s detrimental effects:

For everyone always to be guided by reason alone is far from easy; for each is seduced by his own pleasure, and it is very common for greed, pride, envy anger etc. to take such a hold upon the mind that no place is left for reason.68

Indeed, just before the Political Treatise indictment of the female intellect Spinoza reminds readers that it is certainly true, and proved to be so in my Ethics, that men – i.e. people – are necessarily subject to passions.69 Importantly, this tenet confers on all humans a disposition to passion, so supplying a weaker thesis that nicely accounts for the disruptive effects of political misbehaviour in some men and some women, sometimes. It is consistent with Spinoza’s principle of the mind as the idea of the body, with the thesis of implicit adequate ideas, and with ordinary experience. It allows for token rather than type mental-physical correlations. To such a schema, Rice holds, Spinoza is committed by his nominalism. In Rice’s view Spinoza should acknowledge a broader spectrum of sexual behaviour. He should claim that not only is equine lust different from human lust, but the lusts of two humans are not necessarily the same. Spinoza’s nominalism does not, as Lloyd reads it, “preclude talk about an underlying human nature”, as Rice suggests.70 But Spinoza’s basic doctrine of the correlation of mental states with body states does provide a conceptual niche for destructive attitudes that may be typically male or typically female.

Before passing judgement on how Spinoza undermines this principle in the Political Treatise argument we need to clarify what Spinoza means by a passion. Any emotion, he says in Ethics Part 3, is a variant of one of three primary affects, namely joy, sadness or desire.71 After examination through reason an emotion may be considered a rational, active and adequate idea. But a passion, by definition passive, necessarily lacks intellectual power.

The power of the mind is defined by knowledge alone, whereas lack of power, or passion, is judged solely by the privation of knowledge, i.e. by that through which ideas are called inadequate.72

When people fail to rationalise their passions they are ruled by them. But reasoning out their causes abates their destructive power. The more an affect is known to us, the more it is in our power … There is no affect of which we cannot form some clear and distinct concept.73

We may wonder how an idea defined as passive can have positive power enough to destroy reason. Spinoza tells us that in the grip of passion we are driven about in many ways by external causes … like waves on the sea, driven by contrary winds, we toss about, not knowing our outcome and fate. Our body (brain) is spun out of control by external impressions, and in parallel agitation our thinking processes are whirled round by forces beyond their own power. Our mind is in bondage to the destructive power which drives it.

Can Spinoza legitimately claim that women are as a class more subject to passions than men; that more women than men fail, due to some real sex difference, to ‘see reason’ while gripped by passionate feeling, and that therefore intrusive emotion and irrationality are typically womanish? This gloss might suit Klever, who does not accept the standard “black page” translation of ingenium as intellectual ability, but reads it as “character,” so inferring that the natural weakness Spinoza assigns women is moral.74 But, as seen earlier, Spinoza’s equation of strength of character and reasonableness with the ability to draw deductive inferences does not allow us to prise emotional or political level-headedness apart from intellectual capacity.

On an empirical level there is some support for the view that some women lack rational clarity in the face of emotion. A belief that women are mentally inferior because their brains weigh less than men’s was discredited early in the twentieth century when it was found that women’s brains weigh more than men’s in relation to body size.75 Since then, small physiological sex differences in the brain have been discovered. The neurobiologist Le Vay reports a sex difference in size, relative to brain size, in the splenium of the corpus callosum, the mammalian connection between the two hemispheres of the brain. The relative largeness of the corpus callosum in the brains of females supports the idea, says Le Vay, that women’s cerebral hemispheres are more richly connected than men’s.76 That women do not for that reason apparently as a general rule separate left and right brain functions to the same extent as men allows the conclusion that they find it harder to exclude non-logical thoughts from the logical than do men. Le Vay suggests that it would not be unreasonable to think that women are “more in touch with their feelings”, although he adds that “unfortunately this idea is too nebulous to test in any rigorous fashion”.77 He also hints that an impairment in female thinking influences one particular test of visuo-spatial ability (an ability well documented as favouring males) namely the judging of the surface level of water in a tilted flask. In a recent study, Le Vay reports, ninety-two per cent of men but only twenty-eight per cent of women correctly judged it to be horizontal – as a water-line must always be. Le Vay admits that it is unclear “whether this is truly a test of spatial ability or whether it is a test of intuitive-versus-logical thinking”.78

Le Vay also affirms physiological evidence for what we often take to be typically male irrational behaviour, namely quickness to aggression – often fear-driven but sometimes just “for the hell of it” – and a pervading preoccupation with sex. Both testosterone-induced aggression and sexual preoccupation, which can displace rational judgement, are eliminated by castration or by removing the testosterone-sensitive amygdala in the brain. The effects of testosterone are largely but not invariably suppressed by oestrogen in females.79 Here is some support, then, for Spinoza’s claim that Men generally love women out of mere lust, and that a king, prey to lust may manage everything to suit the whim of some concubine or catamite. It is no support, however, for his belief that female mental frailty is responsible for political disruption, since we are talking here of an essentially male power. Klever, indeed, suggests that feminine distraction in politics is grounded in inter-male sexual conflict.80

I conclude from this empirical evidence that, despite Matheron’s acceptance of Spinoza’s purely female cause, namely female beauty, as the distorter of male judgement,81 induction does not vindicate a Spinozistic claim that women tend, more than men, to blur the boundaries of purely rational thought. Instead, it gives grounds for belief in a sex-differentiated shackling of reason in some, even most, males and females. This coheres with Spinoza’s principle that all people are subject to passions, and with his gradual diminution during the course of Ethics of the prospect of blessedness for other than very few of either sex.


Spinoza’s refusal to grant women political rights on the grounds of their weak intellectual ability and mischievous political influence is thought to be among the last things he wrote before his death:

…. it is impossible for men and women to govern on equal terms without great damage to the peace. But I have said enough on this topic.

Unfinished. (Reliqua desiderantur.)

It ends the Political Treatise abruptly, prompting Matheron to infer semi-flippantly that Spinoza, realising the cruelty of the consequences of his principles, found the realisation enough to make him stop, and die. I have agreed with Matheron that Spinoza thought his denial that nature had made women equal to men, and had given them equal strength of mind and intellectual ability, in which human power and therefore human right mainly consists was entailed by logical/causal necessity. However, while Matheron is content to accept the notion of “some power” in women which diminishes their logical power, I believe Spinoza was seduced by the need, at a time of violent European upheaval, to show himself a useful political pragmatist. In the opening chapter of A Political Treatise he avers:

.. My object in applying my mind to politics is not to make any new or unheard of suggestions, but to establish by sound and conclusive reasoning, and to deduce from the real nature of man, nothing save the principles and institutions which best accord with practice. 82

Is there not a hint of philosophical compromise in deciding in advance what he will deduce from human nature? Would he not, by deducing more assiduously from his foundational principles, have affirmed the possibility of outstanding rationality in some women? This notion was, while rarely stated in his day, by no means new or unheard of. Instead, he allows deductive reasoning to be subverted by the privileged male perspective then best according with practice.

I have argued to the effect that the “black page” of A Political Treatise is black not because, qua Matheron and others, it draws a sad conclusion, but because it shows us a Spinoza who, in defiance of a noble and powerfully argued Ethics thesis of human commonality, produces as an afterthought an incompatible argument. While Spinoza can justifiably claim that individual human minds express unequal mental power, he cannot deduce from his own doctrine that any natural power can “by nature … necessarily” ensure that the entire class of women must be less than the equal of a man in terms of intellect, human power or human right. I conclude that I have demonstrated definitively that the argument of the last page of the Political Treatise is inconsistent with Spinoza’s general Ethics doctrine, and must be judged an embarrassingly feeble philosophical aberration.



TIE Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. Translation used: The Collected Works of Spinoza. Volume 1. Ed. and trans. by Edwin Curley. Princeton University Press, 1985

KV Short Treatise. Curley op.cit.

PCC The Principles of Descartes’s Philosophy.: Curley op.cit.

CM Metaphysical Thoughts. The Appendix to The Principles of Descartes’s Philosophy. Curley op.cit.

E Ethics: Curley op.cit.

TTP (Wernham) A Theologico-Political Treatise. Spinoza: The Political Works. The Tractatus theologio-politicus in part and the Tractatus politicus in full. Ed. and trans. with intr. and notes by A.G. Wernham, Oxford University Press, 1958

TTP (Elwes) A Theologico-Political Treatise and A Political Treatise. Translated from the Latin with an introduction by R.M.H. Elwes, New York, Dover, 1951

TP A Political Treatise: Wernham op.cit.

P Proposition

D Demonstration (Proof)

A Axiom

Def. Definition

Exp. Explanation

Co Corollary

S Scholium

L Lemma

Apx. Appendix

Pref. Preface

Latin text consulted: Gebhardt, Carl. Spinoza Opera. Heidelberg, Carl Winters, 1925.

Spinoza’s Correspondence (1661-1676) Translation used:-

SHIRLEY, Samuel, The Letters. Translated by Samuel Shirley, with Introduction and Notes by Steven Barbone, Lee Rice and Jacob Adler. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis and Cambridge, 1995.

 Notes and references

1. Thanks to the Seventeenth-Century Philosophy Research Group sponsored by Essex University, and the Spinoza Summer School at the international School for Philosophy (ISVW), Leusden, The Netherlands, for helpful discussions.

2. TP XI 3: Wernham 443.

3. TP Xl 4: Wernham 443-5.

4. TP VI 5~: Wernham 317; TP XI 4: Wernham 445.

5. Van den Hove, Pieter (P. de Ia Court) Consideratien van staat cite Polityke Weeg-schaal, 1662, Ii 25: Wernham 317 n.3; TPVIII, 14: Wernham 381 n.2. See Kerkhoven, Jaap, Spinoza’s C/a usu/es Aarigaande Uitsluitiñg van Po/itieke Rech tan in hun Maatschchappetiike Context, Mededefingen het Spinozahuis (63) 1991, 6,10, and, on the refusal of rights to women as standard, 4-5 quoting 0. Haks, Huweljjk en gezin in Holland in cia l7de en l8de eeuw. Pr~cessstukken en moralisten over aspecten van het laat I 7de- en IBde eeuwse gezinsleven, Assen, 1982, 157.

6. Malebranche, Nicholas. Bk 2 Pt 2 ‘The Imagination of Women’, in The Search After Truth. Trans. Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp. Ohio State University Press, 1980, 131-2.

7. More to Descartes, 11 Dec. 1648: Descartes, Correspondance. Ed. Adam, C. and Milhaud, G. Vol. VII. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, 1960.

8. Clara Maria van den Enden, daughter of Spinoza’s teacher Franciscus van den Enden: COLERUS, John. The Life of Benedict de Spinoza. [17061 Martin Nijhoff, The Hague, 1906, 4.

9. E4 Apx. IV, V. IX, XIII; EV passim.

10. Rodis-Lewis, Genevieve. ‘L’lnfériorité’ de ía femme chez Spinoza’. Annales de Lyon III

y- Philosophie, Hermes, 141.

11. Rice, Lee. ‘Spinoza’s Account of Sexuality.’ Philosophy Research Archives. 10, 1985, 24 with n. 1.

12. TTP Preface: Elwes 4. Translated by Curley as “unmanly” in E2 P49 SIV Co; E4 P37 Si.

13. TP XI 4: Wernham 443-5.

14. Leviathan [1651] Ed. with lntr. C.B. Macpherson. Penguin Classics, 1986, XX, 254.

15. Although Spinoza calls the Amazon case “legend”, Klever thinks Spinoza would consider it strong evidence, his source being the Historiae A/exandri Magni Macedonis of Quintus Curtius Rufus, which he cites in the text (TTP XVII: Wernham 157 and 173; TP VI 5: Wernham 317): Klever, W.N.A. “Een Zwarte Bladzijde? Spinoza Over de Vrouw.’ Algemeen Neder/ands Tijdschrift voor Wijsbegeerte 84, 1, 1992, 50-51.

16. TiE [37]. See also E2 P40 52 III; E2 P4402; TTP V: Wernham 99-101. Klever op. cit. 42.

17. Spinoza’s definitions of natural necessity: E1 Def.7; E1 P33 S1; TTP IV (opening paragraph) Wernham 67. He affirms the scholastic equation of cause with reason eight times in E1 P11 D (alternative).

18. KV 1 ii 20; E4 Pref.; E1 P23 D. Spinoza’s Latin sive for “or” denotes equivalence, not disjunction.

19. Letter 6, to Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society, April 1662; KV II: Curley 98.

20. E1 P11.

21. Power = virtue E4 D8; E3 P55 Proof to C; E IV P37 S1. Virtue TTP XVI: Wernham 125; TP II Wernham 269; TP III Wernham 287. Klever op.cit. 42.

22. Matheron, Alexandre, Femmes et serviteurs dans la Démocratie spinoziste. In Hessing, Siegfried (Ed.) Speculum Spinozanum 1677-1977. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978, 337, 381. See also Klever op.cit. 44-5.

23. Klever op.cit. 40-42. 46, 49, 50.

24. Van Reijen, Miriam. ‘Spinoza and women’, Dutch language, unpublished.

25. TP 1(5); 11(1); VII (6): Wernham 263, 267, 341.

26. For many primary sources see ZEMON DAVIS, Natalie, and FARGE, Arlette (Eds.) A History of Women in the West. Vol.111. Renaissance and Enlightenment Paradoxes. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1993.

27. Spinoza’s note f to TIE [19 (30): Curley 13.

28. Matheron op.cit. 378.

29. Lloyd, Genevieve. Part of Nature: Se/f-Know/edge in Spinoza’s Ethics. Cornell University, 1994, 161.

30. Ibid. 162.

31. Ibid. 161, 164.

32. Ibid. 165.

33. Ibid. 159.

34. Ibid. 165-7.

35. Ibid. 165.

36. Entering the feminist debate on the topic of the sexism of philosophy is not necessary for the purpose of isolating the incoherence in Spinoza’s view of women. But see Wawrvtko, Sandra A. The Undercurrent of Feminine Philosophy in Eastern and Western Thought. University Press of America, 1981, 276,279; lrigarary, Luce. ‘L’Enveloppe’, in Ethique de /a Différance Sexue//e. Editions Minuit. Paris, 1984; Gatens, Moira. ‘Towards a feminist theoiy of the body’ in crossing Boundaries: Fern inLcrns and the Critique of Knowledge. Ed. Caine, B. et al. Sydney, Allen and Unwin, 1 988; and Nails, Debra. ‘A Human Being Like Any Other: Like No Other.’ Philosophical Forum Vol.18, 1987.

37. Ibid. 163-4.

38. TTP XVII: Wernham 181; TP VII 27: Wernham 359.

39. Nails op. cit. 124-136.

40. TTP IV: Wernham 123.

41. E2 P37.

42. 1 believe the nominalist-universalist controversy (Haserot, Francis S. ‘Spinoza and the Status of Universals’. The Philosophical Review. Vol. LIX, 1960. pp 43-67) is avoided by Spinoza’s thesis of rational universalism. He remains a nominalist since what is common is a quasi-Socratic one over many – an essence in rebus.

43. TIE 99.

44. E2 P38 Co.

45. E2 P38; E2 P44 D to 02.

46. El A6; E2 P13; E2 P39

47. Principles 1, 49; The Philosophical Writings of Descartes. (Trans. Cottingham, U., Stoothoff, R. and Murdoch D.) Cambridge University Press, 1985, Vol.1, 209.

48. Axioms: P00 Meyer’s Preface: Curley 225; see also E2 P40 SI and TTP V Wernham 77. Foundations … etc. E2 P40 and E2 P40 SI.

49. TTP V: Wernham 99-101: TTP IV: Wernham 81.

50. ‘Biographia Literaria’ in Coleridge, Poems and Prose selected by Kathleen Raine, The Penguin Poetry Library, 1967, 131.

51. TIP XVI: Wernham 127. See also E4 Apx. IV and 5, and ES passim.

52. E4 Apx.IX. See also the basis for a social contract: TTP XVI: Wernham 129-1 33.

53. TP 1V 4: Wernham 301.

54. TIP IV: Wernham 81.

55. Taylor, A.E. Some lncoherencies in Spinozism’. M1ndXLVI, 1937. Also in Kashap, S. Paul. Studies in Spinoza. University of California Press, 1972, 155, citing E2 P47.

56. E1 P15S1.

57. Taylor op.cit. 155.

58. E2 P38 ff. Plato. Meno. (Ed., Trans. and Notes R.W. Sharples) Chicago and Aris & Phillips, Warmirister, 1985, 67-73.

59. E2 P29 S.

60. Letter 56, Oct. 1654: Shirley 277; El P33 52 and Apx.

61. TTPV: Wernham 101.

62. E2 P40 S1. See also E2 P40S2 and TTPV: Wernham 101.

63. Preface to TIP: Elwes 11; E4 P58 5; E4 Apx.XXVII; E5 P39 S.

64. Letter 52, to Boxel, September 1674; E3 P2 SIIii]; E4 P39 S:Curley 569; ES P6 5; ES P39 S.

65. Letter 17, to BaIling, 20 July, 1664.

66. TPVI 3: Wernham 315.

67. TIP XVI: Wernham 129-133; TIP XX: Wernham 231.

68. TIP XVI: Wernham 131; E4 P35 S to Co 2; E4 Apx. XIII.

69. E4 P4 Co.; TP I 5: Wernham 263.

70. Rice op.cit. 23. Equine lust E3 P57 S.

71. E3 P11 S. adapting Descartes’s thesis in Passions of the Soui~ II 169, Cottingham op..cit. Vol.1, 353.

72. E5 P20 SV.

73. ES P3 Co.

74. Klever op.cit. 41-2

75. De Vries, G.J et a). eds. ‘Sex Differences in the Brain: the relation between structure and function: Progress in Brain Research Vol.61. Elsevier Science Publishers, Amsterdam, NewYork, 1984, 363-4.

76. Le Vay, Simon. The Sexual Brain, Cambridge. Mass.& London MIT, 1993, 101-2.

77. Ibid. 103.

78. Ibid. 100.

79. Ibid. 97-8.

80. Klever op.cit. 49.

81. Matheron op.cit. 378

82. TP I (4): Wernham 263.

2 Responses to “Spinoza and the Equality of Women”

  1. frieda bat rahel Says:

    thank you -as a woman I could not have argued the point more precisely and thoroughly …

  2. spinozaauthor Says:

    Thank you Frieda. I apologise for not acknowledging your response until now. I would be interested to know if you feel in any way disadvantaged by being a woman.

    I do not, and never have. I can understand the male attitude that women are inferior if they discuss serious adult issues in childish or emotional ways. But educated women are usually careful to avoid the traps of (for example) high-pitched, excitable speech and feminist posturing, so post-feminism finds no need to make a big deal of gender. May the best person flourish.

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