I recently completed a semester-long independent study of Spinoza’s Ethics, supervised by one of my favorite professors. I’ll be posting, in the days and weeks ahead, thoughts, notes, some excerpts from things I’ve written on the subject, etc.
Quick note: I’ll use shorthand for the various references to Spinoza’s work. They shouldn’t be hard to figure out for someone who is even passingly familiar with Spinoza scholarship, but may confuse those who are not.
All references from the Ethics are taken from Spinoza (2006) except where otherwise noted. Citations are in the following format. Def = definition; Ax = axiom; schol = scholium; P = proposition; IV = section four, post = postulate; lemma = lemma.
So, for example, when I write below “(I P10 schol)”, I’m referring to section one, proposition ten, and the scholium of that proposition. Or “(I P2 proof)”, which refers to the proof of section one, proposition two.
All quotes are taken from:
Spinoza, Benedictus De, and Samuel Shirley (trans). The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and Related Writings. Ed. Michael L. Morgan. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2006. Print.
In section I, proposition eleven of the Ethics, Spinoza writes that,
God, or substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists. (section I, proposition 11)
Spinoza seems to imply here that attributes of a substance constitute the essence of that substance. Here is another passage that appears to suggest the constitutive relation between substance and attributes:
From this it is clear that although two attributes be conceived as really distinct, that is, one without the help of the other, still we cannot deduce therefrom that they constitute two entities, or two different substances. (I P10 schol)
The notion that attributes constitute the essence of substance, in the sense of being parts, seems to be at odds with another passage, where Spinoza writes that,
I say that there pertains to the essence of a thing that which, when granted, the thing is necessarily posited, and by the annulling of which the thing is necessarily annulled; or that without which the thing can neither be nor be conceived, and, vice versa, that which cannot be or be conceived without the thing. (II Def1)
If substance has infinite attributes, and they are all necessary and jointly sufficient for the essence of substance—as one would expect if the attributes constituted the essence of substance—then taking away a single attribute would seem to ‘annul’ substance. Recall: in (I P11), Spinoza notes that each attribute expresses substance’s essence; and on (II Def1), there is something x that pertains to the essence of a thing T such that, when x exists, T necessarily follows..
Suppose there is a hypothetical substance S that is constituted by two attributes, a1 and a2. In this case, there seems to be two things that pertain to the essence of S, and each one is necessary for S to exist. But in that case, ‘granting’ either attribute alone is not sufficient to entail S, and ‘annulling’ either a1 or a2 is enough to annul the whole of S. And, since ‘annulling’ either a1 or a2 has the effect of annulling S, there is a sense in which a1 and a2 are dependent upon one another, which violates Spinoza’s conception of attributes and substance. If that is the case, then it seems that substance cannot have more than one attribute without breaking what I’ll refer to as the conceptual-causal barrier between attributes that Spinoza has constructed.
Substance, and therefore attributes, can only be conceived through themselves by (I P10) (“It is in the nature of substance that each of its attributes be conceived through itself”), which means “the conception of [substance and attributes] does not require the conception of anther thing from which it has to be formed” (I Def3). If all attributes were to be co-dependant upon one another (as in the above hypothetical case of a1 and a2), there would be a sense in which each attribute logically depends on every other attribute, obviously violating the conceptual barrier between attributes. Further, Spinoza’s conception of conceptual dependence is collapsed into his conception of causation. When he writes that “[o]ne substance cannot be produced by another substance” (I P6), he refers to his earlier claim that “[t]wo substances having different attributes have nothing in common” (I P2), which is due to the fact that “each substance must be in itself and be conceived through itself.” (I P2 proof). As ‘produced’ implies a causal connection, we see that not only is there a conceptual barrier between attributes but also a causal barrier which is the same as Spinoza collapses together the notion of conceptual dependence and causation. Hence, Spinoza’s conceptual-causal barrier, and why the appeal to attributes that are co-dependent fails.
Of course, another reply is that of the infinite attributes of God, one is, so to speak, paramount. That is, one of the attributes is that without which substance can neither be nor be conceived. But with the conceptual-causal barrier in mind, appealing to a paramount attribute must also fail. Rather than all attributes being co-dependent on every other attribute, in this reply, all non-paramount attributes are dependent on the one paramount attribute to be conceived, and this entails that all non-paramount attributes are conceptually and causally dependent upon the one paramount attribute. Appealing to a paramount attribute is an even more egregious violation of the conceptual-causal barrier than appealing to co-dependent attributes.
The real question is whether this is a peculiarity that exists in the text of the Ethics, or whether it is a peculiarity of the Latin-to-English translation. I’ll have more to say about this in a different post.