Heidegger and Truth – Lecture 3

November 25, 2012

So far we have been looking at two kinds of logic, informal and formal in our introductory course on philosophy. Both take for granted a certain interpretation of truth, which is agreement. The truth of a sentence is the agreement of that sentence with some state of affairs in the world. A purely logical sentence might only have an internal validity but the truth of its premises is to be found in some experience of the world in which I can verify the meaning of the words.

In section 44 of Being and Time, ‘Dasein, Disclosedness, and Truth’, Heidegger questions this priority of this logical meaning of truth. We have, however already, seen such a questioning of the priority of propositional truth in another text we have read this semester. When Gaita writes that whatever the nun revealed to him about their mistreatment of patients in his book Common Humanity, was not open to an ‘epistemic routes’, then he is questioning the value of propositional truth for ethical inquiry (Gaita 2000, p.22).

When we think about truth, we usually think about it in terms of judgement. It is precisely this way of truth that is common to both formal and informal logic and is very visible in its examples which usually take the form of sentences or propositions. ‘Truth’ as a word is simply taken as granted. A sentence is either true or false, and this consists only of whether it is consistent or valid. Heidegger argues that there is a more primordial notion of truth, which is a kind of showing or manifesting. What is the traditional notion of truth that Heidegger wants to show is secondary? The traditional notion of truth is judgement, and the essence of truth lies in the agreement of the judgement with the state of affairs that it represents. This notion of truth is known as adequation or correspondence:

The ‘locus’ of truth is assertion (judgement); that the essence of truth lies in the ‘agreement’ of the judgement with its object; that Aristotle, the father of logic, not only has assigned truth to the judgement as its primordial locus but has set going the definition of ‘truth’ as ‘agreement’.(Heidegger 1962, p.214)

What Heidegger is attempting to show in this section is that this conception of truth has a hidden ontology which conceals the real meaning of truth as disclosure, manifestation or presence. His aim, therefore, is not to demonstrate the logical conception of truth is false, but that it is secondary. The first question that needs to be asked is what kind of agreement is proper to this definition of truth, and how is this agreement possible. Heidegger uses the example of man who has turned his back to the wall and makes the true assertion: ‘the picture of the wall is hanging askew.’ The truth of the assertion is demonstrated when the man turns around and sees that the picture really is askew. In this example, we can grasp that assertion is a way that we relate to things. To be able to assert something of something I must be already be involved with that thing in some way or other: ‘asserting,’ Heidegger writes ‘is a way of Being towards the Thing itself that is’.(Heidegger 1962, p.260) Asserting then is the uncovering or disclosing of thing. This showing itself by being uncovered is the ontological expression of judgement. There are two ontology conditions for assertion:

  1. Things show themselves.
  2. There is a being whose Being is a being-towards things and person which show themselves.

Truth must first of all, therefore, being defined as an ‘uncovering’ (Entdeckend). But uncovering is only possible if there is a being whose existence is already expressed as having a world in which things or other people can be present. Only because the painting on the wall is something that means something to me in my world, and that it not hanging straight is something that is significant to me, would I make an assertion about it and would this assertion first of all be true or not true. Truth is first of all a way being toward things and persons in a world. In Heidegger’s language it is a way of bringing these entities out of their concealment in into the disclosure. One might imagine in a different culture that such things would not matter and therefore they would not be revealed as significant and no-one would make any statements about them.

The ontological meaning of truth is visible in the original Greek conception of truth as aletheia, which literally means un-forgetting, un-concealing, or un-hiddenness:

‘Being-true’ (‘truth’) means Being uncovering. […] But while our definition is seemingly arbitrary, it contains only the necessary interpretation of what was primordially surmised in the oldest tradition of ancient philosophy and even understood in a pre-phenomenological manner. […] Being-true is aletheia in the manner of apophainesthai – of taking entities out of their hiddenness and letting them be seen in their unhiddenness (their uncoveredness). (Heidegger 1962, p.219)

If truth is way a being in the world, then it can only belong to that being that exists in a world. The only being whose being is being in the world is Dasein, which is Heidegger’s word for human beings. That I can make judgements and assertions about things must mean that they are ‘there’ in some manner and that they show themselves to be there; that is, they are already significant. But this ‘there’ is dependent on a more primordial ‘there’. This ‘there’ is the space of disclosure. This space itself is not a thing, but the world in which things and person become intelligible. Disclosure is the coming to presence of things and persons, and some thing or person being present is dependent on this originary disclosure:

Uncovering is a way of Being for Being-in-the-world. Circumspective concern, or even that concern in which we tarry and look at something uncovers entities within-the-world. These entities become that which has been uncovered. They are ‘true’ in the second sense. What is primarily ‘true’ – that is uncovering – is Dasein.(Heidegger 1962, p.220)

Something can be true only because Dasein in some sense exists ‘in the truth’. What does it mean to say that Dasein exists in the truth? It certainly does not mean that it knows everything; rather is means that it belongs to the possibility of Dasein of uncovering things and persons in the world. The world already has to have an interpretation, a significance, a sense for me, before I can make any judgement about it. This interpretation is not itself cognitive, if we mean by cognitive making assertions about things, but expresses the background of my everyday experience of the world in which I am always already involved with things and persons. I must already relate to things in this manner before any logical relation to them, and this relatedness itself is dependent on the disclosure that belongs to Dasein’s way of being.

Why is it that the logical notion of truth has become to be seen as the only notion of truth? This too must be understood in terms of Dasein’s everyday being. Dasein understands itself in its relation to things and persons. For the most part when it makes this understanding visible to itself it does so through things and persons being present to hand. It ends up with a notion of being in general, as Heidegger describes in the opening pages of Being and Time, which itself is nothing but ‘present-to-handness’, where the world is no longer visible. Yet, the ‘present-to-hand’ has its source in Dasein’s own being that cannot be understood in terms of something present to hand, but must be understood as being-in-the-world. How then to make sense of being in the world without reference to logic? My primary relation to things and other people is not present-to-hand as philosophers think it is, but ready-to-hand. I use things before I make specific judgements about them. Thus I use the hammer to hammer a nail before I make a judgement about the hammer being a hammer. In using the hammer, I have in mind a specific goal or purpose: building a shed. This project itself only makes sense in terms my practical world: something to put my garden tools in, and in the end the fundamental sense of my existence (why do I have a garden). My world is just the way in which things and persons related to one another in terms of their significance. This significance is given to them by my existence that includes both my cultural background and the individual sense that I give it, but this world is lived before it is known, and in fact the perceptual or even epistemological scientific world is dependent on the fact that I live in this world, rather than this world being dependent on them. The source of the doctrine that truth is first of logical has it origin, therefore, in Dasein own misunderstanding of its own being. Because it sees itself as a thing, it forgets that logical statements already need a context (which itself is not logical) so that they can have a meaning.

There is only truth because Dasein is. It we did not exist then nothing would be true. It is because we exist in a relation to things and they matter to us that they are there. If we were not there then they would not be true. They of course would still exist, but they would not exist for someone and therefore would not be true. This is even the case with the most sophisticated understanding of science. As Heidegger writes, ‘Newton’s laws, the principle of contradiction, any truth whatsoever – these are only true as long as Dasein is.’(Heidegger 1962, p.226) Science too, as logic, is not the original relation to the world. It is only because we have or live in a world, which is part of our way of being, that things are present to us and we can make judgements about them or attempt to understand them. But this scientific understanding is always derivative of a cultural background of intelligibility supporting it.

Work Cited

Gaita, R., 2000. A Common Humanity : Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice, London: Routledge.

Heidegger, M., 1962. Being and Time, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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Spinoza’s Materialism – Lecture 9

November 25, 2012

So far, in relation to part 2 of the Ethics, we have only spoken about the mind and not the body (and the mind in relation to the attribute of thought). The particular nature of human beings, however, is that they are the union of a mind and a body. What, then, is the relation between the mind and the body? First of, unlike Descartes, Spinoza begins with the body not the mind. If we are going to understand the nature of the human mind, we first of all have to understand the nature of the human body. This quite is different from Descartes who believes that the union of the body and the mind must be thought from the vantage point of the mind and not the body, and the mind is the truth of the body and not the other way around.

When we are thinking about Spinoza’s parallelism we are thinking about the relation between human thought and the attribute thought. For Spinoza the true ideas of thought are independent from us. These are necessary truths belonging to the causality of thought and not to whom or what thinks them. When we are thinking, however, about the nature of human thought itself, and not just its relation to the attribute thought, then we have to think of the relation between our bodies and our minds, because this is the kind of beings that we are. We already saw from last week’s lecture that the idea for Spinoza has two sides: one side is the idea itself, which Spinoza calls its formal reality, and the other side, is the object that it represents, which Spinoza, following general practice, calls its objective reality. No idea can be defined without these two sides. When we thinking about the nature of thought itself, and not just the human mind, then we are thinking just about the formal reality of ideas, the necessary causality of thought. When we are thinking about just the human mind, though, we focus on the objective reality of ideas. We have to ask ourselves ‘What is it that the human mind represents?’ Spinoza answer to this question is that the human mind represents the human body. We have to be very clear about what this answer means. It means that body is the essence, definition, or content of the mind. What the mind represents is the body, and not itself. Without the body, the mind would be nothing at all; it would have no objective reality. Thus in the scholium to P13, Spinoza will say that the complexity of the human mind, as opposed, for example to the mind of a dolphin, is to do with the complexity of the human body, and not with human mind. It is because our bodies can feel, experience, sense more that our minds are more complex than other animals, and not the other way around. We do not have complex bodies because we have complex minds, but we have complex minds because we have complex bodies.[1] As Spinoza writes in the scholium to P13,

In proportion as a body is more capable than others of doing many things at once, or being acted upon on in many ways at once, so its mind is more capable than others of perceiving many things at once.

This explains why the next section of Part 2 has to do with the general nature of bodies. If we are to understand the human mind through the human body, then we have to understand the nature of the human body first. The human body, of course, is acted upon as any other body is in nature. To put it within a modern context, to understand human psychology we first of all have to understand physics and biology. For Spinoza’s interests in the Ethics is human happiness, then the central idea in this excursus, as Curley indicates, is the idea of the composite body, which is a body that can be acted upon by many external bodies without losing its identity (Curley 1988, p.76).

There are many different bodies in nature: basic chemical elements, simple material objects, simple organisms, and more and more complex forms of life. For Spinoza, the human being is a very complex living organism that is made up of many individual bodies, and is affected by many other bodies, in very many complex ways. What we can or are able to know for Spinoza, is directly related to the complexity of our body to be affected: everything that we know, from the simplest and most basic, to the most complex and extraordinary, first has to come to through the experience of our bodies.

The relation of the mind to the body also explains the limitations of the human knowledge, and the possibility of inadequate ideas. If we have inadequate ideas, then it is because we have a confused or distorted understanding of the body. Thus a false idea, or an inadequate idea, is not false at the level of the mode of thought or mode of extension, but in the relation between them. To understand this relation we have to understand how the human mind comes to inadequate ideas of things.

For human beings, our perception of things, which is the first level of knowledge for Spinoza, is mediated by our human body, as he states in IIP26:

The human mind does not perceive any external body as actually existing, except through the idea of the affections of its own body.

Our perception of things at this level, therefore, tells us more about the condition and nature of our own bodies, rather than the nature of external things themselves. Thus if I am short sighted things will be blurred and small, but this is true for human nature in general, since we can only perceive external things in the way that they affect our bodies, and we cannot perceive them in any other way.[2] In Spinoza’s terminology this fundamental relation between the idea and the object mediated by the body is called imagination. When I see something for Spinoza, I am imagining it. This does mean that I am making it up; rather I have an image of it in my mind, whose origin is mediated by the affects of the body. The image is the correlate of the sensations. We should, however, be very careful about what Spinoza means by the word ‘image’ here. An idea is certainly not a picture (as Spinoza makes very clear in IIP43S), if one imagines a picture to be some kind of thing which is a copy of a real thing, as though in the mind there existed images which corresponded to actual things; rather an idea is always a mode of the attribute thought. Error does not happen because I have the image of something in my mind which is wrong; rather error happens because my mind lacks the idea that excludes the existence of the thing that I imagine to be present. Thus, to use Spinoza’s example, when the young child imagines the existence of a winged horse, it is not the image of the ‘winged horse’ that is in error, but the child lacks the knowledge that would tell him or her that this image could not possibly exist. So there is nothing wrong with the imagination in itself, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to IIP17:

For if the mind, while it imagined nonexistent things as present to it, at the same time knew that those things did not exist, it would, of course, attribute this power of imagining to a virtue of its nature, not to a vice.

Inadequate ideas are those ideas which are caused from outside of my mind. This is only a partial knowledge of an object, whereas adequate ideas, within the internal necessity of the order and connection of ideas, are a complete or whole conception of the object. If we only remained within the external relations of the mind to objects, then we would only have a partial and mutilated understanding of the universe. But why is this understanding only partial and mutilated? This is because the body has a negative impact on the causality of ideas, if we assume that we only know things through perception. Thus, I am affected by the rays of the sun as it warms my face. There is nothing in common between me and the sun, and therefore, at this level, I cannot have an adequate idea of the sun. Rather, as we have already said, this relation tells me more about the body affected (in this case myself) than the body which is the cause of the affection. As Deleuze says in his lectures on Spinoza, a fly would be affected by the sun in a different way (Deleuze 1978). The reason why this is inadequate knowledge is that I only know the sun in terms of its effects on my body (just as the fly only knows the sun in terms of the effects on its body) and not in terms of causes; that is to say, what the cause of the sun and what is the cause of the heat on my face and so on. To know that I would have to know what my body was and what the sun was, and I could not know that simply through the effects of one body on another (it is not through the warmth of the sun against my face that I know that my idea of the sun is adequate and the idea of the sun of the fly is not). Inadequate ideas are therefore representation of effects without the knowledge of causes.

The idea of inadequate ideas will become very important in the rest of Spinoza’s Ethics. For to live at the level of the knowledge of effects, that is to know nothing of the causes of things, is to live a life of encounters only. One sensation follows another sensation, but I have no real understanding of the causes of these sensations. This is the level, unfortunately, that most of us live. When we come to think about our ethical life, this means that we are completely under the control of one feeling following another, like a paper boat buffeted by the mighty waves of the ocean of emotion. If we knew the true cause of these emotions, then we would be in control of them, rather than they in control of us. Knowledge of these true causes is the aim of the rest of the parts of the Ethics.

Works Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze. Sur Spinoza. Available at: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 [Accessed September 30, 2012].

Lahn, B.T., 2004. Human Brain Evolution Was a “Special Event.” Available at: http://www.hhmi.org/news/lahn3.html [Accessed November 25, 2012].


[1] Humans have extraordinarily large and complex brains, even when compared with macaques and other non-human primates. The human brain is several times larger than that of the macaque — even after correcting for body size — and “it is far more complicated in terms of structure (Lahn 2004).

[2] We can of course improve our bodies in relation to instruments, but these instruments themselves have to relate to what our bodies can interact with. There is no point having a powerful electronic magnetic microscope if we can’t make available to the human eye the images that it produces.


Spinoza’s Parallelism – Lecture 8

November 18, 2012

Having just finished the first part of the Ethics, with all its complexity and difficulty, we now advance into the second part, which is just as difficult and complex. Ostensibly the object of the second part is ourselves, whereas the object of the first part was God. And yet reading the definition and axioms, and the first 13 propositions, we might feel that we haven’t left the topic of God at all. But then we have to understand Spinoza’s perspective. He wants to rid us of any idea that we are somehow apart from the rest of the universe and have a special place within creation, what might be called the anthropomorphic bias of philosophy and religion. We must remember that it is this anthropomorphism which is the true cause of the idea of a personal God separate from the universe He creates (It is this transcendence Spinoza wants to destroy). Rather than seeing ourselves as somehow unique (only God is unique for Spinoza), we must see ourselves as just one element within the universe, or what Spinoza would call modes (and a finite mode at that). Spinoza expresses this beautifully in the preface to part three when he writes that there are some who conceive of human beings as though they were a ‘dominion within a dominion’. Human beings are not substances, but modes for Spinoza; that is to say, they are not transcendent but immanent to the universe, part of its processes and necessary laws.

This is not to say that Spinoza is not interested in human beings. Far from it, this is the only thing he is interested in. For Spinoza, like all great philosophers perhaps, philosophy is not just a clever game and how much one knows, but how one should live one’s life. This is why his book is called the Ethics. He writes, therefore, about metaphysics and physics, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of how we might, as part of this infinite universe, lead a better life.[1] As we saw earlier in this course, this idea of ‘leading a better life’ is not the same as being moral, which we, after thousands of years of Christianity might confuse it with, but begins with our human nature as part of nature as a whole. Morality and the personal God are intimately linked, because both abstract human beings from nature. This is true of Kant, for example, who writes after Spinoza, and who, although he is willing to place human being as natural being with nature, wants us, as moral beings, to be set apart: the moral order of human intentions, has nothing at all to do with the deterministic physical laws of nature.[2]

There is another difficulty facing us in the second part of the Ethics, however. That is on the whole hitherto we have been speaking about the infinite attribute extension. This is because this is the easiest way for us to enter Spinoza’s philosophy, perhaps because most of us have an understanding of modern science, and the Aristotelian universe is something we are unfamiliar with, whereas for his contemporaries it would be the other way round. Modern science already contains the idea that all individual things are in fact modes of the fundamental structure of the material universe which is governed by universal and necessary laws. But extension is only one the attributes of substance, and in fact there must be, as Spinoza writes in IP11, an infinity of attributes since God is an infinite substance consisting of infinite attributes.

When it comes to human beings, we can only speak of two attributes: thought and extension. But how do we think of thought as an infinite attribute of substance? It is easy to imagine each singular objects as the mode of extension (even ourselves when we consider ourselves as physical objects), but it is much harder to think of thought that way, because we think of thought as precisely that which individualises us. Remember this is precisely what Descartes did think. Each individual was a separate individual substance, because they were independent; that is to say, I cannot think the thoughts you are thinking now, and you cannot think the thoughts I am thinking.[3] But it is precisely this way of thinking that Spinoza avoids when he says that there is only one substance, and thought is an attribute, not a separate substance, and moreover every individual thought is a mode of this attribute. This means that it is not I who think thought, but thought that thinks through me, and when I perceive something it is not I who perceive it, but God who perceives it through me. We have to think of thought in exactly the same way that we think about extension, as an infinite autonomous and spontaneous attribute containing infinite modes. It is the universe which thinks for Spinoza and that is why we think, and not the other way around.

God or substance is thought under the attribute thought, such as God or matter is extension under the attribute extension. Thus we have to stop ourselves thinking of thought as something that happens in individual minds, which are modes. Rather it is the other way around. Thoughts are modes which are caused by the attribute thought, which is the same as saying, that they are caused or produced by God as a thinking substance, God under the attribute thought. This is why for Spinoza it is perfectly possible to say that machines could or can think, since thought is not a unique property of human beings, but is an attribute of God or the universe. In fact for Spinoza everything in the universe thinks (or is at least ‘animate’), and all we can say is that human beings, in terms of thought, simply think in a more complex way than stones, plants or animals. Ideas exist independent of the human mind, and are produced by God under the attribute of thought, in the same way that things are produced under the attribute of extension, so that there is the sun as a thing, and the idea of the sun which are two different modes of two different attributes, extension and thought which are immanent to the same infinite uncreated substance.

Though we have no difficulty of imagining the sun as separate from the human mind or soul as Spinoza calls it, we have great difficulty of thinking of the idea of the sun as being separate from the human mind. Spinoza would say, therefore, that the truth of the idea triangle that all triangle have 3 angles that add up to the sum of two right angles is true in itself and is independent of any human mind that thinks it. Thus as Woolhouse puts it, what is essential to Spinoza’s idea of ideas is:

The idea of there being real and immutable essences of geometrical figures, essences, which have an existence independent of any instantiation they might have in the corporeal world, and independent of any idea there might be of them in human minds. (Woolhouse, 1993).

This is why, as we said earlier, it is perfectly possible for a machine to think the idea of triangle, for the truth of triangle is not produced by the human mind, but by the universe, which contains an infinity of ideas as it contains an infinity of things. What we have to do then is think the idea of the sun in the same way we think the idea of triangle. As we shall see later, this does not always happen with human beings, because we tend to think the idea of things in terms of the affections of our body, through what Spinoza calls imagination, and not through our minds which can grasp the idea of things in themselves as they are produced by the infinite attribute of thought as it expresses the infinite nature of the universe. So we imagine the idea of the sun is produced in our minds by the external object which has an effect on our body, but this only produces a false and mutilated knowledge for Spinoza.

Again this is very difficult for us to accept because we tend to think a true idea is the adequation of the idea with an object. Thus, if I have the idea of the sun, this idea is true because the idea agrees with the real sun outside in the real world. Now this cannot be possible for Spinoza because attributes are autonomous. This idea of truth as the agreement of the idea and the external object would rest on the mysterious possibility that things could miraculous transform themselves into ideas, that the sun could become the idea of the sun and the object and the idea were one and the same thing, but we cannot think one attribute through another, as Spinoza writes in 1P10.

But it is clear that Spinoza believes that we have true ideas of objects, so how is that possible. His assertion is that there is a parallelism between the order and connection of ideas on the one hand, and the order of the connection of things on the other, that although these two series are absolute autonomous, and they have to be since one is produced through the attribute thought and the other through the attribute extension, that none the less they are absolutely identical, and they are so in themselves and not in the mind that thinks them. This doctrine of parallelism is one of the most difficult notions to explain in Spinoza, but before we can do so, we first of all need to think about what Spinoza thinks an idea is.

As we have already seen for Spinoza, ideas are not produced by human minds, though human minds can think them. Rather, they are produced by the attribute thought which is independent of any other attribute (independent in the sense of self-sufficient not independent in the sense of substance). So we can imagine the universe not only filled with an infinity of modes of extension (trees, plants, animals and human beings to be rather parochial about it), but also filled with an infinity of ideas (the idea of trees, plants, animals and human beings and so on). How do we know that one series agrees with the other, that the idea of the tree is the same as the tree? The answer cannot because we say so, because this is to make the human mind a ‘dominion within a dominion’ and thought dependent on us, rather than us dependent on thought. Ideas are produced by God, or Nature or the Universe or Substance, whatever word you choose.

Ideas are very strange things, and are different from other modes, in that an idea has two different functions (ontologically they exist as one in the idea, we separate them out in terms of analysis), which Spinoza has a special vocabulary to express, though it was a vocabulary that all his contemporaries also used, and which Descartes, for example makes much use of in his Meditations. Ideas are peculiar because they have both a formal and objective reality. Now one of the best explanations of this distinction can be found in Deleuze’s lectures on Spinoza which can be found on the web (Deleuze). An idea is a thought in the sense that it represents an object, so the idea of the sun represents the object ‘sun’. What an idea represents is called the objective reality of an idea. Now this is probably what we all imagine an idea to be and we do not think of anything else, but for Spinoza an idea has another reality which he calls the formal reality of the idea. Now just as much as the objective reality of an idea is something that makes sense to us, then the formal reality of an idea does not. What can an idea be but the representation of an object? Well the idea is just actually what it is as an idea, or as Deleuze puts it, ‘it is the reality of the idea as much as it itself is a thing’. Thus we must separate in our minds what is represented in the idea, which is the object of the idea, and the idea itself which represents the object. So in fact there are not two things: the idea and the object, but three: the idea, the object as it represented in the idea, and the object. Or, the idea sun, the sun as it is represented in the idea of sun, and the sun as an object. Now to the extent that the idea itself is a thing (not of course a thing in the sense of the object, since it falls under the attribute thought, and not under the attribute extension, but still nonetheless a thing for Spinoza, or if one prefers a mode), then I can have an idea of this idea not as an objective reality but as a formal one. I can think the idea of sun as the idea, and not I in terms of what it represents.

It is through this difference between an idea and the idea of an idea that we can begin to understand the parallelism between the order of ideas and the order of things.[4] We begin here because we start with what we are as human beings. We know ourselves and the world through our bodies, but what is peculiar to us (what makes us more complex than stones plants and animals) is that we are capable of reflection; that is, capable of having an idea of an idea. I do not just think of objects but also I can think of ideas; ideas can become an object of another idea. I have an idea of the sun, which represents the sun to me, but I can also just think about this idea in itself. Now it is the idea of an idea that for human beings (not for God) that we can begin to see how truth is possible (or as Spinoza would say we can think adequate ideas), and notice that truth here is between an idea and another idea as the object of this idea; that is to say it is immanent to thought, and does require the agreement between thought and the external world of objects.[5] The idea is the result of the active power of the mind as a mode of the infinite attribute thought. It is not a copy of an object. Therefore an idea cannot be true by pointing to something in the object, for whatever I would be pointing to would itself be an idea, or better the relation between ideas. When I say that truth is the conformity of the object with the idea, then this conformity itself must be an idea, or in Spinoza’s language, an idea of an idea, and this ‘conformity’ cannot itself be an object. The idea itself must be adequate, and it can only be adequate because I can think it as so. The idea is true to the extent that it conforms to the object of the idea, but it does so only because it contains all the causes and reason of that object, which themselves are internal to reason (not human reason, but Reason itself). To have a true idea therefore is know the cause of ideas. The cause of ideas is the necessary relations between them. These necessary relations are not produced by the human mind, but by the power of thought itself.

What we have to understand is that if ideas where only the representation of objects, then there would be no necessary relation between ideas, and if there were no necessary relations between ideas, then there would no possibility of science. What we have to say is, ‘What are the necessary relations between ideas?’ which is the same as saying, ‘What is the causal relation between one idea and another one? We have to make this distinction between the idea as a representation and the idea as a cause, and again for Spinoza we cannot say that this necessity of ideas lies in the object, because all attributes are autonomous. We cannot think a thought under the attribute extension, just as much as we cannot think an extended thing under the attribute thought.

To use Gueroult’s example, in his second volume on Spinoza, to have an idea of an idea is to go from this idea back to the knowledge of the order and connection of its cause in thought (Gueroult, 1974). I understand thought A by knowing that it is caused by B and so on. So as to go from the idea of triangle to the idea of the equality of the sum of its angles to two right angles, the mind must first of all think of the idea of the idea of a triangle, so as to understand the cause which results in the idea of the equality of angles, and is so doing it has an adequate idea of the triangle. Through reflection I understand the necessary causal relations between thoughts, which are produced by thought itself and not by my reflection, as Gueroult explains:

La liaison des idées ne dépend pas de la réflexion sur les idées, c’est-à-dire des idées des idées, car les idées sont en soi produites selon l’ordre des causes dans la Pensée, sans qu’interviennent en rien les idées des idées, c’est-à-dire la réflexion (The linkage of ideas does not depend on the reflection upon ideas; that is to say of the ideas of ideas, since ideas are produced in themselves according to the order of causes in Thought, without the ideas of ideas intervening at all; that is to say, reflection). (Gueroult, 1974, p. 71)

Reflection does not produce truth; it only discovers it. It is the discovery through human knowledge of the order of ideas as caused by the attribute Thought.

But how do we get from these necessary causal relations of thought to the necessary causal relations of things, and at the same time understand that they must be identical, without one being the source of the other? The answer to this question is to concentrate on the idea of causality. Both ideas and things are produced simultaneously through their attributes. This means that things, which are the object of ideas, follow the necessity of their attribute, with the same spontaneity and autonomy, as the ideas of these things follows the attribute of thought. If thoughts are connected together by necessary order of connection, then things must also be connected together necessarily, and this necessity must be the same. They are the same not because things determine thoughts, nor thoughts things, but this necessity comes from the infinite nature of the one substance, which these two attributes express. Thus to use Spinoza’s example in IIP7S, the circle and the idea of the circle are other to one another, since they fall under different attributes, though the necessary connection between things and the necessary connection between ideas is identical. It is not that the necessary causality of things determines the causality of thought, but the necessity of substance (this necessity must be the same otherwise there would be as many substances as there would be attributes). In thought the connection between ideas is produced by the necessary causality proper to thought, and this order is the same as the order of things under the attribute extension. They are the same, because both are immanent to the same substance which is infinite and unfolds in a necessary way through each attribute. This does not mean, however, that attributes are fused together in substance. Each attribute is autonomous and so expresses the necessity of substance in its own way. As Gueroult, writes, they are both indissoluble and heterogeneous (Gueroult, 1974, p 90).

Works Cited

  1.  Ayers, M., & Garber, D. (Eds.). (2003). The Cambridge History of Seventeenth Century Philosophy (Vol. I). Cambridge: CUP.
  2. Deleuze, G. (s.d.). Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze: Deleuze/Spinoza, Cours Vincennes 24/10/1978. Consulté le November 5, 2007, sur Webdeleuze: http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2
  3. Descartes. (1985). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (Vol. I). (J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff, & D. Murdock, Trans.) Cambridge: CUP.
  4. Gueroult, M. (1974). Spinoza (Vol. II, L’âme). Paris: Aubier.
  5. Kant. (2003). Critique of Pure Reason. (H. Caygill, Ed., & N. K. Smith, Trans.) Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.
  6. Woolhouse, R. S. (1993). The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth Century Metaphysics. London: Routledge.

[1] And in this sense, he is very different from Descartes who writes philosophy first of all because of science and not ethics, notwithstanding his book on the passions. (Descartes, 1985).

[2] He wants to make room for human freedom. See, for example the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (Kant, 2003).

[3] See, (Ayers & Garber, 2003).

[4] Spinoza did not use the word ‘parallelism’ to explain his philosophy. Rather, it was Leibniz.

[5] In other words, truth has nothing at all to do with sensation.


Kant and the Synthetic A Priori – Lecture 5

November 16, 2012

We are tying to find out the meaning of transcendental idealism. We have discovered that it is better not to understand it as the unification (and how could there be such a unification of opposite poles that cancel one another out?) of rationalism and empiricism, but the prising of them apart so as to find, so to speak, hidden beneath this opposition, which appears to cover every possibility, a third alternative. This third possibility is what Kant calls transcendental idealism. One of the routes into what this might mean is rather convoluted expression a priori synthetic judgement.

One of these terms were already in use before Kant, and which he uses in the traditional way, and that is a priori, which was distinguished from a posteriori. An a priorijudgement was one that was necessary and universal, and thus logical, whereas an a posteriori judgement was contingent and grounded in an appeal to experience.  Kant, however, invented the term, ‘synthetic’, and here we have to introduce the notion of a predicate proposition. When we say something about something, we predicate something to it.  Let us use Kant’s example of ‘all bodies have extension.’  The first concept is the subject of the judgement, ‘body’ and the second the predicate of the subject.  Now this judgement for Kant is analytic; that is to say, the predicate can be discovered in the subject simply by analysing it.  If I understand the meaning of the concept ‘body’, I know that extension is contained in it.  The other kind of judgement is synthetic. Again to use an example of Kant, the following judgement is synthetic: ‘all bodies have attraction’.[1] It is synthetic because under the general description of the ‘body’ it adds a predicate that is not to be found by simply analysing the first concept.  No matter what I understand by the term ‘body’. I cannot simply deduce the concept ‘attraction’. This seems clear and simply enough, but where Kant diverges from classical philosophy is in the relation between these new terms and the old ones of a prioriand a posteriori.  We would think all analytic judgements would be a prioriand all synthetic ones a posteriori. Yet this is precisely what Kant’s claim to have discovered a priorisynthetic judgements denies. Such judgements could neither be empirical, for they are a priori, nor merely logical, for there are synthetic; that is to say, neither rationalism nor empiricism can explain them.  The clue for their existence, for Kant, is to be found in the separation of human knowledge into two faculties, intuition (or sensibility) and the understanding.[2]

The two building blocks of human knowledge for Kant are concepts and intuitions.  An intuition is the immediate appearance of the object – the table that you see before your eyes, and the concept is idea or meaning through which you think the object, ‘table’ in general.[3] Although in our mind, we can easily abstract these two sides of human knowledge, in the absence of either nothing truly can be known, for without intuitions concepts would be about nothing, and without concepts intuitions would be chaotic and orderless. To use Kant’s famous saying, concepts without intuitions are empty and, intuitions without concepts are blind:

Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought.  Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concept are blind. It is therefore just as necessary to make our concepts sensible, that is, to add the object to them in intuition, as to make our intuitions intelligible, that is, to bring them under concepts. These two powers or capacities cannot exchange their functions.  The understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their union can knowledge arise. [A51/B79]

Corresponding to intuitions and concepts, there are two faculties of human knowledge: to intuitions, the faculty of sensibility, and to concepts, the faculty of the understanding. For Kant, it is absolutely important, in understanding the kind of beings that we are, that we can only know something through the faculty of sensation; that is to say, that the object must be given to us.  There might be other beings (and Kant is thinking of God here) that are able to know things directly through thought (what he calls ‘intellectual intuition’), but we cannot do so. This is a very important limit on the validity of human knowledge. We can think many ideas, but the only ones that have any validity are those that are limited to the sphere of experience, for it is only the conjunction or union of intuitions and concepts that produces legitimate knowledge. Kant’s critique of many of the pseudo problems of philosophy has to do with the illegitimate use of concepts beyond experience.

In the introduction, Kant does not prove the validity of a priori synthetic knowledge, but argues that without out it mathematics, physics and metaphysics would not be possible. The argument, if you like, works, backwards. We all accept that mathematics and the others forms of knowledge exist, and that they must be a priori and synthetic, therefore the task of philosophy is to prove their validity. However, some might argue that it is not even the case that these discourses are a priori and synthetic.  We might argue for example that mathematics is a priori and analytic and physics is a posteriori and synthetic.

Let us then take the case of mathematics. which Kant spends sometime describing in the introduction. Why does Kant argue that it is synthetic and a priori and not analytic? To answer this we need to look a little closer at the difference between the analytic and synthetic that we have already introduced. First of all how can we recognise a priori judgements? Kant’s response is that every a priori judgement fulfils two criteria: universality and necessity. Thus an a posteriori judgement could never be necessary or universal, since it could always be contradicted by a future experience. As we have already said, we tend to think that the difference between a priori and a posteriori statement is the same as the difference between analytic and synthetic statement. Thus every analytic statement is a priori and every synthetic statement is a posteriori. So following this reasoning, since mathematics statements are clearly a priori, since they fulfil the criteria of universality and necessity, then they must be analytic. Yet it is precisely this designation that Kant disputes.

Kant defines analytic in terms of the relation between the subject and the predicate. An analytic statement is one in which the predicate is contained in the subject. So in the statement, which we have already used, ‘all bodies are extended’, the subject ‘body’ contains necessarily and universally the predicate ‘extended’. It is important to be precise here; otherwise why Kant thinks mathematical statements are a priori but synthetic will be obscure to us.[4] What does it mean to say that one concept is contained in another? This a relation between a higher genus and lower species. The genus is contained in the species and the species are contained under the genus. Thus under the concept ‘metal’ is contained the concepts ‘gold’ or ‘copper’. A concept’s content is general concepts contained in it, and its logical extensions are the specific concepts under it. We can understand this idea of containment in terms of logical division. Thus a concept is logical divided in terms of its extensions. We can divide the concept number therefore into odd and even numbers. This division is logical because it follows the rules of completeness and exclusivity. So the predicate ‘odd’ covers completely the genus ‘number’ and no odd number can be even. This means that conceptual relations are reciprocal. Thus every extension of the concept A contains A as part of its content. A lower concept must contain whatever a higher concept contains, and a visa versa. Without this concept containment, then we are not facing an analytic judgement. This has nothing to with the idiosyncratic definitions of an individual but how one concept is contained in another.

When it comes to the introduction of the Critique, the key question for Kant is whether mathematical statements follow analytic containment. It is clear that mathematical judgements are a priori because they are universal and necessary. But are they analytic? The problem is that when Kant declares that they not and our synthetic, he seems merely to state it rather than prove it.

One might initially think that […] ‘7+5=12’ is a merely analytic proposition […]. Yet if one considers it more closely, one finds that the concept of the sum of 7and5 contains nothing more than the unification of both numbers in a single one, through which it is not at all thought what this single number is […]. The concept of twelve is by no means already thought merely by my thinking that unification of seven and five, and no matter how long I analyse my concept of such a possible sum, I will still not find twelve in it. [B15]

What Kant has to show is that there is not a containment relation between the concept ‘7 + 5’ and the concept 12. The argument would be that mathematical relations between numbers cannot be expressed in containment relations. Remember that containment relations are reciprocal. If A contains B, then B must contain A, and whatever A includes or excludes, B must include or exclude. This is precisely what does not hold with mathematical expressions. If 12 is contained in the concept ‘7+5’ then it must include and exclude what it does, but this would be mean that that concept ‘7+5’ would exclude ‘7’ and ‘5’, since 12 ≠ 7, nor 12 ≠ 5.  What is not contained in the concepts ‘7’ and ‘5’, therefore is the sum concept ‘7 + 5’. Something else is added there, which is the relation between these three numbers. This is clearer if we look at the following proposition, which Kant used in letter to Johann Schultz: ‘3 + 5’ = ‘2 × 4’. Here no-one would think that the two concepts have the same content, since they involve different numbers with different operations even though they might refer to the same object (the number ‘8’).

It would appear then that mathematics proves the existence of a priori synthetic statement. The question for the rest of the Critique is why do these judgements exist in mathematics, physics and mathematics, and do we have the right to use them? What we will discover is that origin of mathematics is in what Kant calls pure intuition and the pure understanding, and not in logic or experience.

Works Cited

Allison, H.E., 2004. Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Guyer, P. ed., 2010. The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.


[1] The first example is taken from The Critique of Pure Reason, whereas the second is from Kant’s lectures on logic, which is referred to by Allison (2004, p.76).

[2] This is separation of philosophy; in experience they always go together. Thus I always see something as something, and never just see it.

[3] We need to underline here that intuition for Kant does not mean the power of the mind by which it immediately perceives the truth of things without reasoning or analysis; rather it is immediate sensation. These immediate sensations, however, are still representation.  I don’t see a ‘red sensation’. I see ‘red’.

[4] An excellent account of concept containment can be found in Anderson’s chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (Guyer 2010, pp.73–92), which our explanation follows pretty much to the letter.


Modes in Spinoza – Lecture 7

November 12, 2012

So far in our discussion of Spinoza’s Ethics, we have only spoken about substance and attributes. This is because we have tried to answer the question ‘why is there only one substance?’ We have seen that to understand Spinoza’s argument we have to see that it progresses from the principles of Descartes’ philosophy. Spinoza is only taking to its logical conclusion what is already implicit in Descartes’ philosophy, which he himself, because he is still caught up in a theological world view where God is viewed as transcendent in the world, could not see. It is this theological prejudice, this ‘human fiction’ as Spinoza calls it in the appendix to Part 1, which is the source of the separation, distance and split between attributes and substance in Descartes’ thought, and which necessitates the one-to-one correspondence between attributes and substance, such that every attribute must have its corresponding separate substance. Thus, there is not just the thought-attribute, but also thought-substance; there is not just extended substance but also extension-substance. As Curley argues, this doubling up of substance and attribute is caused in Descartes text because he cannot accept that God could also be extension, and therefore he still needs the split between infinite and finite substance.

Spinoza, on the contrary, begins with the idea of infinity (which was already there in Descartes’ definition of God, but is still confused with the more traditional attributes), and deduces the necessity of the existence of one substance from it. This is well explained in Bennett’s, whose tone, however, can be quite confusing, because like most analytic philosophers, he begins with the premise that the philosophy he is studying must be wrong because he could not have been aware of recent modern developments, as though the philosophy progressed like an empirical science, and one would no more read Aristotle to understand the world, than Ptolemy the night sky (Bennett 1984, pp.70–9).

Let us, us therefore, have a closer look at Bennett’s explanation of Spinoza’s monism. The answer to the question, he argues, as to whether Spinoza is a monist, is whether it takes more than one substance to instantiate two attributes. For Descartes, as we have seen, it is clear that two attributes means two substances. The argument for Spinoza’s monist can be seen in 1P14, where Spinoza states that ‘except God, no substance can be conceived’. The proof is that God, as an infinite being, must include every attribute (1D6) and therefore must necessarily exist (1P11). If any other substance exists, then it must be explained in terms of an attribute of God (since every attribute is included in God). This would mean that two substances would exist with the same attribute. Following 1P5, this is absurd and therefore no other substance, other than God, can exist or even be conceived. From this it follows, as shown in the corollaries, that ‘God is one alone’ and that, contrary to Descartes, extension and thought are either attributes or modifications of God.

Bennett explains this proposition in the following way. There must be a substance with infinitely many attributes, and there cannot be two substances with an attribute in common. Therefore there must be one substance. The issue is the first premise: why must there be a substance with infinitely many attributes? The answer to this question, Bennett suggests, is to be found in 1P7 and 1P11. In 1P7, Spinoza argues that substance must exist because a substance cannot be produced by something other than itself, otherwise it would not be independent (this is Spinoza’s version of the ontological argument). It therefore must be its own cause, and its existence is included in its essence. And 1P11 that God is an infinite substance which consists of infinite attributes which necessarily exists.

After Kant and Hume, we might not so easily convinced by the ontological argument, Spinoza or anyone else’s, but Bennett points out, Spinoza’s is peculiar because it goes through the idea of substance which is defined, to use Bennett’s expression, as being ‘entirely self-contained’ (Bennett 1984, p.73). This means that is cannot owe its existence to anything else. We must add to this definition the rationalist insistence that everything that exists must have a reason to exist (of course if one does not believe this then one cannot be a rationalist – as this fundamental belief is what is common to Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz). There can, therefore, be only two possibilities, either substance is caused by itself, or it is caused by something else. It could not be caused by something else otherwise it would not self-sufficient, ‘entirely self-contained’, therefore it must be its own cause. So we have to see that for Spinoza it is because God is a substance that he necessarily exists. It is built into the definition of God that he must have every attribute, and if you link that to 1P5 that two substances cannot have the same attribute, then we are lead necessarily to the conclusion that there can only be one substance.

How then do modes fit into the relationship between substance and attributes in the Ethics? To answer this question we first of all have to remind ourselves that the fundamental distinction is Spinoza’s philosophy is between independence and dependence (Curley 1988, p.20). Attributes and substance are both independent; that is, they are conceived through and exist in themselves (this follows from 1D3 and 1P19)). It is important not to separate attributes and substance, however, since they are nothing but the essence of substance. Modes, on the contrary, are dependent; that is to say, we can only conceive of them through attributes and they exist, to use, Spinoza’s language, in another (1D5). Again we can understand this difference, which is essentially the difference between attributes, which make up the essence of substance, and modes, through Descartes (though as we shall see for Spinoza, his modes are particular things because the way that he conceives of substance). Take, for example, the famous example of the piece of wax in the Mediations. When Descartes first experiences the piece of wax, when he brings it into his room it smells of flowers, tastes of honey, makes a sound when rapped, is hard and cold to the touch, and it is white, a cube and an inch in diameter. These are obviously all the properties the wax, and if someone where now to ask me what the wax is, I would list them. But now Descartes places the wax near the stove and the action of the heat changes all the properties. So these qualities cannot be the explanation of what the wax is, for the wax is still there, and yet it has completely different properties. It has no fragrance of flowers, no longer tastes of honey, it doesn’t make a sound, it is soft rather than hard, and is no longer white or a cube. There, then, has to be a more fundamental explanation of what the wax is, which explains these changes of properties in relation to the action of heat, and this is the attribute of extension, which for Descartes is ‘matter in motion’; that is to say it is the interaction of the tiny particles of matter set into motion by the action of heat which explains the change in properties of the wax, which are dependent on them.

The primary law of physics, as Curley explains, for Descartes is the principle of inertia (Curley 1988, p.40). Everything remains the same state unless acted upon by an external cause and every motion is in a straight line so that any deviation must be explained by an external cause. These two laws tells us that there would no change in the universe unless by an external cause. The third law explains the nature of change. If a moving body comes into contact with another body which has more motion that it, then it will not impart any motion to that body, but will change its direction, but if it comes into contact with a body that has less, it will move that body along with itself, and impart as much motion to it as it loses. This means that in the interaction between bodies the total motion of the universe is preserved. From these 3 fundamental laws all the laws of nature can be deduced, and from these laws all secondary qualities can be explained.

Of course we have to ask ourselves why these fundamental laws are not any others. And remember that as a rationalist I am committed to the principle that everything must have a reason to exist, otherwise it wouldn’t. Descartes answer to this question is God. But as we have already seen for Descartes, God and matter cannot be identical. This seems to imply that the eternal and immutable essence of nature is separate from God, and there are therefore two eternities: the eternity of God and the eternity of nature. Descartes gets around this problem by arguing that the eternity of nature, the fundamental laws of physics that underlie all the laws of nature and thus all secondary qualities, are in fact dependent on God’s will. To use Descartes’ metaphor, God has established them as a king establishes laws in his kingdom. They are eternal only because of the eternal will of God, which implies that God could have created the fundamental laws of nature differently. Thus the difference between modes, attributes, finite and infinite substance expresses a hierarchy of being for Descartes, and it is for this reason that he remains trapped within theological vision of the universe, however much he might say the opposite.

It is this hierarchy that Spinoza sees as incoherent. Cartesian physics needs the fundamental laws of physics to eternal and necessary, but at the same time he makes them contingent on the absolute power of God, which would make them utterly arbitrary. Spinoza is as committed as Descartes to the rational view of nature, so in order to preserve the rational explanation of the universe, he has to get rid of the personal God who still inhabits the pages of Descartes’ philosophy, who has the same capricious will as a tyrant (again this is why the appendix of part 1 of the Ethics is so important, for of course the misidentification of God with the arbitrary power of a king also has a political message). What Spinoza does is identify God with the laws of nature. Every time that we compare Descartes and Spinoza we can see that it is matter of the latter getting rid of the all the divisions and separations that the former still want to hang onto. Spinoza flattens Descartes’ transcendent split between finite and infinite substance, and thus the separation between substance and attributes – attributes are not other than substance, rather they express the essence of substance.

We need to rid ourselves of the anthropomorphism of thinking that nature is created by the arbitrary choice of a God that stands outside of it, and also places us both at the centre and outside of it. God’s essence is nothing else than the eternal and immutable laws of nature. We do not need anything else than the fundamental laws of nature, already explained by Descartes. We do not need to ask why these laws and not any other, because there could be no explanation beyond them. To explain is go from particular to general (just as I do in the example of the wax). There is nothing more general than these laws. To then say that these laws are explained by the arbitrary will of God is to go from the general to the particular, which is not explanation at all, but just a descent into superstition and error. Of course, I can say this and believe it, and there were people in Spinoza’s time who believed it, and may who still do, but this does not make it an explanation however many times that I utter it, and however dogmatically I believe it. Religious belief is not a substitute for scientific explanation, and the kind of religious belief that thinks that it can replace science is nothing but the absurd project of human power onto the universe, where we think we are separate, rather than just one more part of the whole (this separation is perhaps the true psychological origin of all religion – the fact that the human species cannot conceive of itself except as an extraordinary exception).

Everything follows from the universal and necessary laws that are inscribed within the attributes, which do not need any more explanation since attributes can only be conceived through and exist in themselves. From these laws follow all the individual thing and properties that we see in the universe, which are what Spinoza call modes. Modes themselves are distinguished by Spinoza as either infinite or finite. Infinite modes follow immediately from the attribute. Thus motion and rest are infinite modes that follow immediately from extension, and these laws in turn explain finite modes; that is particular individual things. Infinite modes are infinite because they apply to all of nature at any time and any place, and are eternal in the sense that they are necessary. They are not infinite and eternal, however in the same sense, as attributes, since they are dependent on these attributes, whereas attributes, as we know, are entirely self-contained.

The difference between finite and infinite modes is that former do not follow unconditionally from the attributes. It is for this very reason that they are finite and not infinite. Any particular thing comes into existence and passes away. Thus to explain why two bodies interact completely we would not only need the fundamental laws of physics, but also a complete description of the history of these two bodies circumstances and why they met in this place and at this time. This complete explanation is not possible, because we would have to know the infinite series of causes and effects which brought about this encounter, which we cannot know (and we remember from our reading of Part Three that this is the source of inadequate ideas).

We do, however, need to be to be careful here. This does not mean that Spinoza is letting chance make the universe. It is not that the encounter is unpredictable; it is just that we cannot know the infinite series. The universe is utterly deterministic for Spinoza; that is, everything follows, whether immediately or mediately from the essence of God. Contingency does not belong to the structure of the universe; rather it arises, as Spinoza states in 1P33S1, as a ‘defect of our knowledge’. Such determinism is utterly important to understand Spinoza’s ethics which follows from his physics and metaphysics. For the human fiction of morality is based upon the idea of human freedom, which of course is merely magnified, is the image of the transcendent and hysterical God, which is equally loved by both the tyrant and the slave.

Works Cited

Bennett, J., 1984. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, [Indianapolis, IN]: Hackett Pub. Co.

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.


From Descartes to Spinoza – Lecture 6

November 11, 2012

For Spinoza there is only one substance and this substance is God. God, too, is central to Descartes’ philosophy, for without the proof of the existence of God his whole metaphysics would collapse. But to some extent he still has a theological conception of God. God is understood as separate and transcendent in relation to the world such that Descartes splits substance between the infinite and finite, and finite substance itself is split between extension and thought. Spinoza is precisely rejecting this split when he writes in the Ethics that: ‘God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18). We can understand Spinoza’s metaphysics as deducing the necessity of there being only one substance from Descartes’ principles. Therefore it is not simply a matter of Spinoza rejecting Descartes’ philosophy, but of demonstrating that following his own principles he too must agree that there can only be one substance and that this substance must be God.

The relation of Spinoza and Descartes to the idea of God is itself ambiguous. On the one hand they both agree with the essential definition of this idea that God is supremely perfect and infinite being. This means that God cannot be conceived as limited in any way since he would be less than perfect if he were so. Already in this idea, therefore, lies the necessity of one substance. For if, like Descartes, we do make a split between infinite and finite substance, then we are limiting God, namely by contrasting and opposing God to the created world, which has its own independent existence (and must do if we are to call it a substance). The only way Descartes can get out of this contradiction is by producing another one by arguing that finite substance must be dependent on God’s power for its own existence, which would mean that finite substance would be both dependent and independent at the same time. For Spinoza the very idea of a dependent substance, following from Aristotle, is a contradiction in terms.

We can still see, however, that even with this abstract definition, which is the same for both Descartes and Spinoza, Descartes’ philosophy is still caught within a theological definition of God (a human fiction for Spinoza, following the appendix of the first part of the Ethics). This is because Descartes is still willing to talk about God in terms of divine attributes, such as omnipotence and omniscience that distinguish God from the created world. There is a separation between what is created and the creator. God is special kind of substance in relation to the substance of the world. Thus the idea of creation is still central to Descartes’ metaphysics, which would be completely meaningless for Spinoza. In fact we might think of Spinoza’s metaphysics as the final expulsion of any idea of creation from philosophy (in the appendix to Part 1, Spinoza writes about this idea through the fiction of final causes, where nature is imagined to be created for the benefit of humankind by a tyrannical God, as opposed to being considered in terms of its essence).

Descartes still exists in the theological conception of an absolute separation, division or opposition between the world, on the one hand, and God, on the other. For Descartes, therefore, God cannot be extended, because God and the world are entirely different substances. How would Spinoza counter this theological conception? Again, following the appendix to the first part of the Ethics, he would say that we must start with the essence of things, rather than what people might imagine things to be, and that this is the same with the idea of God, as of anything else. What many people say of God – He is good, omniscient, omnipotent, and so on – are properties, but they do not say what God is in terms of attributes; that is to say, in terms of his essence. Take, for example, of omniscience. This is a property of God, but it cannot be a ‘fundamental property’, since it presupposes the attribute of thought on which it is dependent (it is impossible to conceive of an ‘all-knowing being which does not think).

Descartes would probably not disagree with this argument, but it is clear that he would not accept that God could be conceived of in terms of extension, since extension is not infinitely perfect for Descartes. This is because extended matter is divisible, and it is clear that God cannot be. Why does the divisibility of matter imply imperfection for Descartes? This is because divisibility is the destruction of matter, and destruction is an imperfection. Spinoza’s argument against this is that divisibility of matter is merely a mode, and in essence, matter is not divisible. This is because following 1P5 there can only be one extended substance, since two or more substances cannot have the same attribute, since they would not be anything that would distinguish them: ‘In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.’[1] If there is only substance, can we really say that matter is being destroyed? Even if I divide extended substances into different parts, nonetheless these different parts still exist as part of the one substance, which has not been destroyed at all. The leg that I cut off the horse is no longer part of the horse, but both the horse and the leg are still part of one and the same substance, and therefore I have not separated this substance, when I have separated the horse from its leg. If this were the case, then the separated leg would no longer belong to extension at all. In fact the horse’s leg is just a portion of extension that is qualified in a certain way. We should not, therefore, confuse the disabling of matter with its destruction. It is also means that extension is as infinite and eternal as thought, and it is only a theological prejudice of Descartes that prevents him from saying that it is just as much a ‘fundamental property’ or attribute of God as thought.

Spinoza’s philosophy is not a refusal of Descartes’, but is a thorough logically worked out consequence of his thought, which Descartes could not himself go to the end of perhaps because of a theological prejudice which prevented him from understanding these consequences. For Descartes, each substance has one attribute which constitutes its essence. For minds it is thought, and for bodies, extension. He calls these ‘principle attributes’. Knowing what the principle attributes are would tell you what you are dealing with, and what you should expect. Thus, you would not be lead to the mistake of confusing and thought with a thing. One could say for Descartes, therefore, that what is important is not substance, but attributes, since attributes are the ‘principles of explanation’. For Spinoza it is the other way around. It is substance itself which is the principle of explanation, and not attributes, since it is not limited to the two attributes which Descartes describes, but must contain infinite attributes. Since to argue otherwise would be to limit substance and thus contradict its infinite essence, as Spinoza writes in IP8: ‘Every substance is necessarily infinite.’

For Descartes each separate attribute, which must be conceived in itself, since we do not need to know what thinking is to know what extension is, and vice versa, implies a separate substance, since he understands substance through attributes. Why, then, does Spinoza argue that we should think reality the other way around, and say that there is one substance with infinite attributes? In response to this we might ask whether it is possible to think of one substance with infinite attributes, perhaps because we tend to think in the same way as Descartes. Spinoza’s answer to this question is that we already do so through the idea of God. Since God is by definition infinite, He must contain infinite attributes, since if he did not, then He would lack something, which would contradict his infinite essence. Moreover if God did lack something then there must be something that caused God to do so, which again would contradict his essence and the very meaning of substance as independent.

We might not be convinced by Spinoza’s argument at this point, but Curley says that there is another way to get to the same conclusion. If each attribute is conceived through itself, it must, therefore, also exist in itself. If it existed in something else in order to exist, then we would need to be able to conceive such a thing before we could conceive the attribute. If an attribute is conceived in itself, and exists in itself, then it satisfies the definition of substance in 1D3 (‘by substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself’). But if we have infinite attributes, each conceived and existing in itself, wouldn’t we then have an infinite amount of substances, rather than just one, as Spinoza believes? Curley’s answer to this question is to say that Spinoza’s substance is a ‘complex of very special elements’ (Curley 1988, p.30). If each attribute is conceived through itself, they must also exist in themselves, and must also exist necessarily. If this is the case, then no single attribute could exist without the others, since they all necessarily exist: ‘The existence of each one of the attributes implies the existence of all the others’ (Curley 1988, p. 30). Substance, therefore, is not anything different from attributes. It isn’t something that lies behind attributes, as some kind of separate and distinct cause, which would lead us straight back to the transcendence we are trying to get rid of. God, therefore, is nothing but the existence of an infinite plurality of attributes, and nothing else.

Work Cited

Curley, E., 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method : a Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics, Princeton  N.J.: Princeton University Press.


[1] Ethics, p. 3. See also IP13. To make matter divisible is to divide it into parts, but that would either mean that these parts would not be the same as substance, which would cause substance not to exist, or there would be many substances with the same attribute which would be absurd.


Substance in Spinoza – Lecture 5

November 4, 2012

Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to modern readers of Spinoza Ethics is the language he uses. It is one which would be perhaps understandable to readers of his time, but has become pretty meaningless to us now. It is a language that has its roots in scholasticism, though, like Descartes, (who is the most important philosophical influence on Spinoza) everything he writes is a rejection of this tradition. Scholasticism obtains its language from Aristotle (or at least as he is handed down by the Islamic scholars to the West in the 9th century), so we first need to go back to this source.

Those of you who did the first year course on Greek philosophy might remember we briefly discussed Aristotle’s philosophy and especially his notion of ‘substance’, and this is where we need to start, since ‘substance’ in one of the most important words in Spinoza’s vocabulary. We are also going to use as our guide here the excellent book by Woolhouse, The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth Century Metaphysics (Woolhouse 1993, pp.14–27).

When we normally think of the word ‘substance’ in English, we associate it with the idea of matter. As for example, when we think of the question ‘what substance is this table made out of?’, we would probably respond by saying, ‘wood’ or ‘plastic’, corresponding to the material it was constructed from. This is not what Aristotle means by substance at all, and certainly not what Spinoza means by it. In fact Aristotle has a completely different word for matter in Greek, which is hyle. The word in Greek for substance is, on the contrary, ousia. Ousia is the 3rd personal singular feminine present participle of the Greek verb ‘being’. Now the grammar of this word is not particularly important for us, but what is important is that it has its origin in the verb ‘being’. Ousia is not the word for matter for Aristotle but for what is. Everything that is, is named by the word ousia, since everything that is must necessarily be; that is, must necessarily possess being, whether we’re talking about tables, galaxies or even ourselves. This notion of being, Aristotle says in the Metaphysics, is the proper subject matter of philosophy, and no other study. So the question we must ask ourselves is what did Aristotle think was the answer to the question what is being?

What is real for Aristotle are individual things like men, animals and plants and so on, and what is, is made up of these individual things. This seems to follow common sense, and it is clear those philosophers before Aristotle where not so ready to agree with common sense. Many of them tended to believe that there was a much greater reality behind the individual things we experience, which it is the task of philosophers to describe. Think, for example of the first Greek philosopher that we have any information about, Thales, who thought that every individual thing was in fact made of water, which was therefore the ultimate explanation and reality of the universe.

The best way to understand Aristotle’s idea of substance is to go back to his theory of predication. In fact we might say that it is this theory of predication which is the true source of his understanding of being: the way we understand being has its origin in the way we talk about the world. A substance for Aristotle is a subject of a predicate, but which at the same time is not a predicate of anything else. This is true definition of what we mean by an individual thing: it is independent of anything else. This notion of independence, as we shall see, is crucial to the meaning of substance, and is the key especially of understanding Spinoza’s use of the word. A substance is what undergoes change (it can have different predicates attached to it), but it itself remains the same, or holds onto its identity. Think of Socrates the man. He can be young or old, cold or warm, wise and ignorant, and so on. We can predicate all these different and opposite predicates of Socrates, but nonetheless it is still Socrates the individual (who is different from Peter and the chair over there) who we say these things of. Substance, then, has two very important parts of its definition: independence, and identity.

Now the question for Aristotle, as it is for every philosopher, is whether individual things are the ultimate substance or whether there is something greater than individual things, and which can explain them in a better way than they can explain themselves. This would mean that individual things would not be independent but would be dependent on something higher. In the same way that hot only makes sense predicated on some other individual thing, and can only have a meaning because of this; individual things would be, in fact, predicates of something else. This would mean, therefore, that there ‘substantialness’, in the Aristotelian sense of the word, would be an illusion. But it is precisely this kind of thinking he rejects. What is real are individual things, and it is they that undergo change and not something else. We tend to think there is some more ultimate reality because like Plato we confuse the definition of something with its reality – thus, because we notice there is something common between different horses, we make the mistake of thinking that there is some kind of ‘Horse’ which is the ultimate cause of them. Or we confuse substance with matter; that is to say, we think everything is the same because they are all made of the same kind of stuff.[1] It is true that things are made of matter, and there might be some ultimate matter which is the explanation of all forms of matter (like atoms), but that is not enough to explain what something is for Aristotle. For Aristotle what something is made up of its matter and its form, and it is this form which is explained by substance. The form, therefore, tells us what the thing is and why it is what it is. Matter, alone, for Aristotle, cannot do this, for it just tells what is the same about everything, but not why this thing is the thing that it is and not any other.

The most important influence, as we have already indicated, on Spinoza is Descartes, who will use this Aristotelian vocabulary, but will give it a very different meaning. The two important characteristics, however, remain: independence and identity. Descartes writes as though he has escaped Scholastic philosophy, which has been the dead hand on scientific progress by retaining the Aristotelian view of nature, against the new mechanist theory of nature. But this is just propaganda, for he will still use their vocabulary, and in relation to the idea of God, there is much that is ‘scholastic’ in his thought. The most important influence is the very idea of God itself. For this is not something that would have been of concern for Aristotle, at least not as it is presented in theological thought. For Aristotle the universe is eternal, but for the Christian thinkers, such a view would deny creation; an idea which would have been utterly inconceivable to Aristotle. The idea of creation changes everything in the doctrine of substance, for the notion of independence belongs to its definition. If the universe is created by God, and it must be in Christianity, then everything that exists in creation must be dependent on Him. There, therefore, can only be one independent substance, which is God. Descartes, however, is not willing to go this far. Rather, he says, we can distinguish between two kinds of substance: infinite substance, which is God, and created substance, which is any individual thing which is dependent on God for its existence, but not anything else. We could say they have relative independence, and they correspond to what Aristotle defines as substance. A substance, just as in Aristotle, is everything which is conceived of through itself and not through some other kind of thing, and that which exists (apart from the fact that it is created) in its own right. A substance is therefore the subject of predication, of which we predicate qualities, properties and attributes to, and remains identical through change.

We say that created substance is similar to Aristotle’s notion of substance. It is similar in its definition (independence and identity), but not similar in what it describes. For substance describes individual things in Aristotle, tree, galaxies and you and me, but it does not do so for Descartes. To understand this difference, we are going to have to look at two other technical expressions, which are also fundamental for Spinoza: attributes and modes. Descartes’ philosophical system has three levels of reality: infinite substance, finite or created substance, and properties or qualities. We could see the relation between these levels as one of dependence: with infinite substance, created substance would not exist, and without created substance properties and qualities could not exist, for they always need to be properties or qualities of something. These properties or qualities of created substance Descartes calls modes. If modes are dependent on substance, then substance in itself cannot be a mode. We know substances, therefore, for Descartes through attributes, and there are two main attributes which explain all the possible modes that we know: extension and thought. The first explains objects in the world, and the second thoughts in our heads. These two are quite different, and this is why they are to be explained through two very different attributes, which cannot explain each other. A thought is not an object, and an object is not a thought. Attributes, therefore, have something in common with substances: they can only be conceived through themselves and not through something else – thus we can only understand the attribute extension through extension (length, breadth and shape – which can be understood mathematically) and not through anything else, whereas a mode must be understood through extension (heat is the motion of particles). In the same way a thought can only be understood through the attribute thought, and not through anything else, whereas any mode of thought (belief, love, desire and so on) must be understood through thought, since one cannot desire something, for example, which one cannot think. These principle attributes constitute the nature of substance for Descartes, and there must, therefore, be two kinds of substances, which explains his dualist metaphysics. Thus, whatever exists, substance, attribute, mode, must either be a body or thought, and cannot be anything else. He does not give a reason why there is only two kinds of substance, but only that there are only two.

How then is Descartes different from Aristotle? In terms of nature, the notion of individual substances disappears, such as trees, galaxies and human beings called Socrates. Rather, there is only one corporeal substance, of which these things are only modes. Thus, Descartes gets rid of Aristotle’s notion of forms, which explains why each thing is what it is. For Descartes this can be explained by the location, motion and rest of matter itself, and no appeal to any form is required. Individual human minds are, however, for Descartes, individual substances in the way that Aristotle would still talk of them. Anyone who thinks is an individual thinker, and cannot be the same as any other individual thinker – we do not have the same thoughts (this follows the rule that any substance must be independent).

How, then, does Spinoza’s thought fit within these two descriptions of substance by Aristotle and Descartes? First of all it follows the same definition of substance that it must be conceived in and through itself. Again this is what is meant by saying that substance must be independent. Also his notion of attribute appears to be the same as Descartes, in that it expresses the way that we perceive substance. We might ask ourselves, therefore, how an attribute comes to express substance. Why this attribute and not any other, for example? We have already seen that Descartes just says that there are two, but not why there are only two. Attributes are ways through which substance is understood. Now we really need to take care with our propositions here. For though Spinoza will agree that it is through attributes that we understand substance, he will argue further that substance is not only conceived through itself, but also in itself. What is the difference between conceiving substance through itself and in itself? Descartes collapses the real distinction between finite substance and its attributes (whilst making the latter dependent on God who is separate and transcendent) and this is why he can only conceive of two principle attributes. But for Spinoza, thought and extension are only the way that we perceive substance, but it in itself must have infinite attributes, since it must be infinite.[2] If it were finite, then it would be limited by something outside of itself, and therefore it will fail the test of independence which is the definition of substance. There must, therefore, be only one substance, and not two kinds of substances, as Descartes argues. If can only do so because he holds onto the difference between creation and God, finite and infinite substance. For Spinoza, on the contrary, there is only one substance which is ‘God or Nature’.

Works Cited

Woolhouse, R.S., 1993. Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz : the Concept of Substance in Seventeenth-Century Metaphysics, London; New York: Routledge.


[1] Later on it will be important to see whether Spinoza is doing this, and whether substance means matter for him, for it is clear that unlike Aristotle he thinks that there is only one substance.

[2] This does not mean that thought and extension is merely the appearance of substance, which is something different in itself. They are real distinctions.