Spinoza’s Attributes of Substance, Part I

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.

On Spinoza, Walter Kaufmann, and God

Here’s an interesting little quote from Spinoza’s Ethics (Samuel Shirley translation), in the scholium to proposition 47 of part II:

That men do not have as clear a knowledge of God as they do of common notions arises from the fact that they are unable to imagine God as they do bodies, and that they have connected the word “God” with the images of things which they commonly see […]. Indeed, most errors result solely from the incorrect application of words to things.

Now, one might note the similarity here between the ‘linguistic turn’ of analytic philosophy in the 20th century, which is itself fascinating, and a testament to Spinoza’s philosophy being well-ahead of its time, with plenty of valuable insights even for present day philosophers to note (Spinoza scholarship is very lively, mind you!). But I want to note the similarity here between Spinoza and something my philosophical hero, Walter Kaufmann, notes in his ‘Critique of Religion and Philosophy’ (Princeton University Press, 1978 edition):

In sum, terms applied to God do not mean what they generally mean. Those who say God exists do not really mean that he “exists” in the same sense in which anything else exists. Those who say that God is being-itself, or a spirit, or love, do not mean those terms in any ordinary sense. But if terms applied to God do not mean what they generally mean, if they have a unique meaning when applied to God, then all such talk about God is conducted in a peculiar language with rules of its own. (section 50, p. 179)

Ahh, interesting. Especially since Spinoza himself means many of these terms in rather unique ways: his God is certainly not the traditional sort of God from either Christian or Jewish theology. Further we have a distinction of discourses in the plural. Kaufmann may be thinking of something like Wittgenstein’s concept of language games here, wherein certain rules, proscriptions, and so on, are the context within which general communication is even possible; and only by generally following these rules, can we be sure what we call ‘meanings’ are adequately communicated to our compatriots. But Kaufmann has more to say as well:

In chess, “king” and “bishop” do not mean what they usually mean, but every term has a precise meaning, and the game would not be changed if we substituted “fool” for “bishop,” as the French do, or “devil” for “king.” But assertions about God depend entirely on their ambiguity: it is their apparent meaning, their surface sense, that counts 99 per cent of the time, and it is only under questioning that this is modified, and only under persistent attack is it withdrawn to the point where frequently no sense at all remains. (section 50, p. 179)

There is a point in favor of Spinoza, as Kaufmann sees it: the Ethics is a rigorously logical book. Starting from some few axioms and definitions, Spinoza is able to work out an entire system of metaphysics deductively, covering the entirety of God, or Nature… Or what we might think of all the universe, or everything that exists. Even though, as I noted earlier, Spinoza has many idiosyncratic uses of various terms, they are all DEFINED. No major terms are without definitions or expository passages to get Spinoza’s usage and conceptual understanding across.

But the Bible mostly lacks this sort of rigour, which obviously isn’t a dig at the Bible. Far from it. The Bible isn’t a work of analytic philosophy, after all. Why ought we expect it to be amenable to that sort of analysis? The Bible almost certainly was not mean to be read (or listened to) with philosophy in mind, especially the sort of systematized, scholarly conception of philosophy as a discipline that we know and love/hate today. Hence, what Kaufmann describes as the genesis of theology:

To understand such peculiarities of theology, one must remember that theology, and indeed any systematic discussion of God, was born as a defensive maneuver. It is the product of a distinctive historic situation. Claims of a less sophisticated age have been exposed to rationalistic attack when theology appears to salvage the tradition. (section 50, p. 180)

Theology as an essentially defensive maneuver strikes me as not-inaccurate. Obviously, that’s not the only way of conceiving theology, but it certainly seems to be at least one reasonable way of characterizing theology. I don’t know if theology really began, or came out of, an intellectual defense mechanism, but I suppose I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. As with anything else, when claims one makes are questioned, one possible response is to come up with convincing reasons for why they are, in fact, true. Kaufmann then succinctly summarizes his point for us:

Seeing that “God” is so far from being a univocal term and that the terms applied to him by theologians are admittedly not intended to mean what they generally mean, it is no exaggeration if we conclude that most statements about God are essentially ambiguous [emphasis in original]. They cannot be called true or false. Interpretations of them which are true are usually ingenious or trivial or heretical—and often all three. The propositions themselves defy translation. (section 50, p. 181)

Here is where we find a significant break between Spinoza and the picture Kaufmann paints of theology (or, if you will, as theology really is…?). Spinoza’s conception of the universe, as well as God, thought, matter, mind, etc., are univocal. The attributes express conceptual differences, or perspectives from which to perceive, in one or another thing. We perceive each other as, simultaneously, extended bodies and as thinking subjects. But, rather unlike Descartes, Spinoza’s universe is emphatically non-dualistic. The extended body and the thinking subject are one and the same thing conceived now this way, and now that way. There’s no difference in substances, no difference in the order or kind of causation between states of my mind and states of my body. For Spinoza, can be no other sort of God except for a univocal God. To equivocate beyond noting that the attributes give us varying conceptual perspectives would be to introduce a break in reality that simply could not be justified without also jettisoning the sort of naturalistic order of reality that his metaphysical system exemplifies. Spinoza simply cannot conceive that there could be a fundamental distinction between the extended and the non-extended mind (or soul), for the distinction would require a totally different order in reality, and Spinoza’s conception of reality is one that is singularly understandable. An understandable, or explicable, reality that has a single explanatory framework, a single causal order, and a single universal notion of what causation is. A reality where universal laws of nature pertain to all interactions, to all parts of every existent thing. To claim otherwise would be to violate naturalism as well as introducing a much less explainable or understandable conception of reality. The principle of sufficient reason forces us to conclude that there is a cause, or reason for every effect; every event can be explained, reasons given for why things occurred as they did as well as for why they did not occur in a different fashion. Occam’s Razor cautions us against introducing unnecessary entities, properties, or, in this case, explanations, into our understandings. Combined, they make a powerful argument to Spinoza for a naturalistic substance monism. But to return to theology and Kaufmann, what is being pointed out here is that the Christian conception of God needs univocity, insofar as univocity would provide the most powerful defense of God in terms of predicates and properties that we are already familiar with, in the same way in which we are familiar with them. But when theology attempts to make use of predication or property that normally applies to the kind of reality humans inhabit on a day-to-day basis, there are huge philosophical problems lurking just beneath the surface. Once questions begin to be asked, theology is slowly forced back, eventually ceding the very ground that it requires to make the most powerful arguments for the very God theology clings to.

The Problem with “If X, then please delete me/please block me”

“Feel free to block me if you want to.”

“If you feel that way, please delete me.”

There are other ways to phrase it, but you get the idea. And anyone who says it has a serious problem. There’s something really sinister to this. It’s usually meant as a sorry, but I’m not sorry thing; ‘do what you have to do, but I won’t do anything’.

In saying this, the onus of action is placed on something external. The statement is a tactic rejection of agency, and the individual making the statement demands a reaction to them rather than an action by them, a fulfillment of their desire. It is passivity raised to the form of an argument: I will not act, though I desire you to; a polemical expression of infantilization: I cannot act, though I demand you do.

When I say this to you, it places you in a position of reaction. No longer is your agency unencumbered, but rather it becomes inextricably linked to my desire; my agency becomes your choice; my responsibility is illegitimately thrust upon you. No longer can you act, but merely react, that low, base form, beholden to the outside, necessarily oriented to some extrinsic object or affect. Paradoxically, I have rejected my agency and simultaneously co-opted yours (so I hope, at any rate) for my own ends.

What does one wish to happen, in saying this?

By blocking or deleting me, you simply fulfill my desire to feel, even be, oppressed further. You validate my perception of being oppressed by you, my perception of being burdened by your disagreement. Rather than coming to terms with dissent, with discomfort, I reject all discomfort and affirm comfort as my value par excellence. The Other, not a person, but an Idea, becomes opposed to the essence of my existence, and thus I must be removed from it, though not remove myself. That would not validate or reify my ressentiment. For that, I require you, your agency, the relation of my desire and your agency.

If you do not, then you seem to owe me an apology for failing to actualize my desire to be oppressed or negated, to return to me to the mode of agent, to appease my discomfort (which is, obviously, still a form of infantilization). This is tantamount to an admittance that dissent was improper, that not only was your point wrong, but it was so wrong that even voicing it did violence to my person.

Of course, it doesn’t matter: either way, I have shown my hand, so to speak; I have opened the curtains to my essence, and shown you my ressentiment, my complete rejection of that which does not agree with me or conform to me, and my absolute need to negate it, a need that surpasses all other desires.