Modes in Spinoza – Lecture 7

Spinoza2So 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 mis-identification 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 things 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.

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