Spinoza on mind-body identity: Hübner wins best article prize

The Journal of the History of Philosophy (JHP) has awarded its 2022 best article prize to Cornell philosopher Karolina Hübner for “Representation and Mind-Body Identity in Spinoza’s Philosophy,” which appeared in the quarterly journal in January 2022.

Each year, JHP awards an Article Prize to an article published in the previous year’s volume, and a Book Prize to a book published in the previous year.

The winning article by Hübner, associate professor of philosophy in Cornell’s Sage School of Philosophy and Himan Brown Continuity Fellow for the Jewish Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences, gives a new reading of Spinoza’s claim that minds and bodies are “one and the same thing.”

This claim by the early modern philosopher Baruch Spinoza (also known as Bento or Benedict) is commonly understood as a claim about the identity of a referent under two different descriptions, Hübner wrote. Her paper proposes instead that Spinoza’s texts and his larger epistemological commitments show that he takes mind-body identity to be (1) an identity grounded in an intentional relation, and (2) an identity of one thing existing in two different ways.

“The questions I'm interested in are very old, but I think that Spinoza offers some very rich and unique answers,” Hübner said. “I also think that many of the standard assumptions about his views are wide off the mark. My recent publications, like the JHP paper, have attempted to chip away at this interpretative status quo. I'm trying to change the terms of the interpretative debates a bit and open new interpretative avenues.”

The JHP article is part of a book Hübner is writing on Spinoza’s understanding of what it is to have a mind and to think, starting with big-picture questions about the place of mind in nature, and ending with particulars of human experience and consciousness.

There are few book-length monographs devoted specifically to Spinoza’s views about thinking, despite the fact that there are now many books about his philosophy as a whole, in recognition both of his tremendous influence on later philosophers – 19th century idealists like Hegel in particular – and the notoriety of some of his claims.

“For example, Spinoza thinks that all things, even simple amoebas, can think, in some very broad sense,” Hübner said, “and also that everything can be explained – i.e., that the world as a whole is thoroughly intelligible, which as a philosopher I find a very tempting claim.”

Spinoza has much to offer on topics that continue to perplex philosophers today, Hübner said, including: how minds and bodies relate; what it means to be conscious; and how we can reach out into the world cognitively by having an idea of or a thought about something in the first place.

Spinoza’s philosophy also offers insight into environmental questions, Hübner said: “what is the nature of nonhuman cognition and what are its limits, and how might this shape our moral commitments to our environment and its co-habitants?”

In related research on the mind, Hübner has received a New Frontier Grant from the College of Arts and Sciences to explore panpsychism – the theory of widespread, even generalized sentience – bringing together thought from philosophy, psychology, biology, neuroscience and AI research to examine the possibilities, defensibility and repercussions of widespread sentience, and to establish Cornell as a place where groundbreaking intellectual research on the mind takes place.

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Karolina Hübner
Karolina Hübner