This chapter presents a genealogy of the Buridan’s ass paradox (Ethics II)—the donkey that cannot decide between two equidistant bales of hay. Because these bales are identical in all respects, the poor creature is unable to make a decision and starves to death. Spinoza’s invocation of the ass emerges at a crucial point in his argument and directs us toward an entire sheaf of questions. It argues that the paradox has two ostensible targets: Descartes’s separation of understanding and will and Hobbes’s exclusion from the covenant with the sovereign of all those who cannot decide. As such, Buridan’s ass depicts the tight connections between Spinoza’s ontology, politics, and epistemology. From this viewpoint, Buridan’s ass demonstrates Spinoza’s materialism.
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