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Knowledge of the Third Kind

In his Ethics, Baruch Spinoza identifies three kinds of knowledge, which are defined by the methods by which they are obtained.


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Meredith Kirby

4 months ago | 6 min read
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Spinoza on imagination, reason, and intuition

In his EthicsBaruch Spinoza identifies three kinds of knowledge, which are defined by the methods by which they are obtained.

The first is knowledge from imagination, the second is knowledge from reason, and the third is knowledge from intuition. He considers the third kind of knowledge to be superior to the first two.

I find his views on these matters to be extremely compelling.

These three degrees of knowledge work together in order to give us a more complete picture of reality. To rely on imagination, reason, or intuition alone would be an incomplete and inferior way to obtain knowledge.

Using these three methods in the order presented is a fantastic strategy. First, we develop an opinion, and then we can apply both reason and intuition to fully understand if our opinion is true.

Knowledge of the first kind, Spinoza wrote, “is the only source of falsity,” while the second and third kinds of knowledge help us to arrive at what is “necessarily true.”

Spinoza established in the first part of Ethics that there is only one substance, and that substance is God.

Spinoza’s view on the infinitely ubiquitous nature of God in all things is something that is essential to understand in order to understand how Spinoza thinks about knowledge. He defines substance as something which is “conceived within itself” — God creates itself and has no other cause.

Spinoza also believed that there is no absolute free will and that the mind’s desires to think or do something all come from a chain of causes, which can all be traced back to one universal cause: God. Knowledge of God does not depend on knowledge of anything else. God is the ultimate cause of all knowledge.

God expresses itself in infinite attributes, which must all necessarily exist. Attributes are how our intellect perceives the essence of God in all things.

Spinoza explains that we use our imagination to consider things like the future and the past, which are contingent. He did not think of this as “true knowledge,” but more of an opinion of what true knowledge might be.

Essentially, we imagine what might be, based on our experiences of what already is or has been. He uses a brief story to explain this kind of knowledge: if a child saw Peter in the morning, Paul at noon, and Simon in the evening, he assumes he will see Peter in the morning again today.

Since the sun has risen this morning, and every other morning that I’ve been alive, I might imagine the sun rising tomorrow, which is another example of this first kind of knowledge.

While my assumption about the sunrise and the child’s assumption about Peter may both be reasonable things to imagine, they may not necessarily be true, based on this kind of knowledge alone.

What he’s illustrating here is essentially the problem of induction, as later defined by Hume. Hume puts it best: “instances of which we have had no experience resemble those of which we have had experience.” We can make reasonable assumptions based on imagination, but they will not always turn out to be true.

Spinoza explains that we use our reason to explain things that are necessary and eternal rather than contingent. He explains that it is in the nature of reason to view things as necessary rather than contingent. Ideas about any person or thing are necessarily true in the same way that the existence of God is necessarily true.

Reason is the first filter through which we must run our imagined ideas. I might use reason in order to explain that the sun “rises” in the morning due to the rotation of the Earth. This is an example of this second kind of knowledge.

Ideas like the laws of physics and mathematics are born of this kind of knowledge. We might compare this second kind of knowledge to deductive reasoning, as opposed to the inductive reasoning implied by the first kind. When we create valid, sound arguments, concluding based on true premises, we are utilizing this second type of knowledge.

For Spinoza, there can be no real knowledge without the consideration of the infinity of God, which exists within everything. Spinoza explains that we use our intuition to comprehend the essence of things, which are essentially the parts of God that exist within all things.

He said: “The knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God, which every idea involves is adequate and perfect.” These essences are like the divine fingers which occupy the familiar sock puppets of physical, comprehensible reality.

While I might imagine the sun rising tomorrow because of my experience, and know that it rises because of the reasoned explanation that the Earth rotates, my understanding of how beautiful the sunrise is is an example of this third kind of knowledge.

I can only know through intuition that the sunrise this morning was beautiful. My perception of beauty is not rational. It is not rational for the sunrise to move me to tears– but it does.

Wecan understand the world around us in a way that yields more positive results in our lives if we use both reason and intuition.

The better we become at applying both reason and intuition to problems, the greater our understanding, the more compassionate we become, the less we are ruled by our emotions, the closer we get to God, and the better off we are overall.

Spinoza believed the third kind of knowledge to be superior to the first or the second, and I agree with him. He even believed that the highest possible virtue was to understand things through knowledge of the third kind.

Once, in Paris, while walking to take the bus to the airport to fly home, I was mugged. It was my imagination that told me that Montmartre was a bad neighborhood and that it made sense that I was mugged there; it was likely to happen, based on what often happens there.

It was my reason that told me that the person who mugged me was probably a drug addict looking for a fix; he was gaunt and skinny, and in a neighborhood filled with drug addicts. These premises were enough for me to rationally conclude the man’s motivations.

More important was the knowledge that came from my intuition. It was my intuition that told me this: if circumstances were different, I could have just as easily been that drug addict, mugging someone else for my own fix.

Relying on reason allowed me to give a rational explanation for this negative behavior that I perceived in another person, which increased my compassion for that person. But reason alone wasn’t enough for me to understand, in the way that Spinoza wanted us to understand things.

Until I used my intuition to understand that the mugger and I are both born of the same substance, I had not reached the level of understanding at which Spinoza’s method aims.

Reading Spinoza has been life-changing for me. My imagination tells me that reading other philosophers has also been life-changing for me in the past, and it’s reasonable that Spinoza might be life-changing for me now.

My reason tells me that Spinoza has impacted me in such a profound way because his ideas are similar to ideas I have conceived on my own, and his articulate expression of them is validating for me (see, I’m not wrong, Spinoza thinks it too!).

My intuition tells me that there is a reason why I’ve discovered ideas that appear to have sprung from my own brain in the writings of a philosopher who died centuries before I was born.

My intuition tells me that Spinoza’s thoughts are probably not much different from the thoughts of the ancient Hindus who said “namaste,” “I bow to the divine in you,” or the ancient Mayans who said “In Lak’ech Ala K’in,” “I am another you.” 

Maybe there’s even a reason why ufologists define direct contact with an extraterrestrial as a “close encounter of the third kind.

There is a reason why so many human beings across so many cultures and throughout time have come to such similar conclusions about the nature of reality and being.

These conclusions cannot be reached through the application of the scientific method or methods of logic alone.

The realization that we are all a part of the divine, expressing itself through us, can only come as knowledge of the third kind.

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