The Vision of Necessity and the Intellectual Love of God in Spinoza – Lecture 12

April 15, 2014

BaruchSpinoza4Part 5 is perhaps the hardest part of the Ethics, and not because it is impossible to understand the words we read. Such an interpretative difficult probably belongs to the book as a whole. Rather, even if we can understand the words, do we really know what Spinoza means by the intellectual love of God? Is it possible to have such an experience? It reminds me of some of the stories in Plato’s dialogues which are there to explain the ultimate end of philosophy. I can read the words of the Symposium that describe the ‘ascent to the beautiful’, but can I really know what this means if I have never had such an experience, which as Spinoza writes at the last sentence of the Ethics, is as beautiful as it is rare? Sometimes we confuse knowing about philosophy with being a philosopher, and they are not always the same thing at all.

What is the highest wisdom of philosophy? Plato and Spinoza are one is this regard: to teach you not to fear death. As Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 38:

From this we understand what I touched on in IVP39S, and what I promised to explain in this part, namely that death is less harmful to us, the greater the mind’s clear and distinct knowledge, and hence, the more the mind loves God.

But how do we get to this sanguine state so that we no longer fear death, which is probably the greatest fear we all have? We do so by reaching what Spinoza calls the third level of knowledge. It has already introduced us to this level in the second part of the Ethics (IIP40), and it is worthwhile here to remind ourselves what the three levels of knowledge are. The first level is the stage that most people are at. It is the knowledge of opinion and belief, which is motivated by fear and hope. This level is not really knowledge at all, but ignorance and unawareness of the world around you and the network of infinite series of causes and effects that determine one’s existence. The second level is a little more difficult, but is knowledge proper. It involves, Spinoza argues, common notions and the adequate ideas of things. Thus, he will write in the second part of the Ethics that there are universal properties of bodies that are recognised by all (IIP38). These common notions are adequate ideas of things and form the basis of our scientific understanding of the universe, but not only this understanding as we shall see later. Now we would think that this would be the end of the matter: the distinction between knowledge and opinion, but it is not. Spinoza says that there is a third level of knowledge, which is the intuitive knowledge of God. It is this knowledge that is the proper knowledge of the philosopher, or the wise human being, which is the same thing, and is the purpose of the Ethics to convince us both that it exists and is possible, and finally can enable us to free ourselves from the worse effects of our affects.

What is this intuitive knowledge of God, or what Spinoza will call, in Part 5, the ‘intellectual love of God’, and how does it differ from the second level of knowledge? The first thing to underline, as Lloyd stresses, is that we should not confuse this with any kind of mystical or supernatural knowledge (Lloyd 1996, p.110). There is no transcendence in Spinoza, no reality beyond this reality, no being beyond being. The second kind of knowledge is an understanding of things through the parallelism of the order and connection of ideas and the order and connection of things, but the third kind of knowledge is an immediate understanding of myself and my place within the universe, or to use Spinoza’s language, my place within God. My understanding of this produces the highest affect of joy in my mind (for we have to remember that there is no division between reason and affects for Spinoza), which is what he calls ‘blessedness’. However this immediate joyful wisdom is not be confused with mysticism or irrationalism.

At the end of his lectures on Spinoza, Deleuze explains these different types of knowledge in terms of swimming (he is adamant that we should not take mathematics as the model of adequate knowledge, but just as one example) (Deleuze 1978). What does it mean to know how to swim? Perhaps the best way to understand this is to think about what it means not to know how to swim. Not to know how to swim means to be at the mercy of the waves such that if one entered the ocean one might drown. To be at the mercy of the waves is inadequate knowledge, for one has a passive relation to external elements about which one only knows the effects (‘I am drowning’) and not the causes, which would be precisely to know how not to drown, and which is the same as knowing how to swim (learn to float, learn to shut one’s mouth so the water does choke you, and so on). Now as the waves crash over me, depending on what happens, I might cry out in joy or shock. Such are my affects or passions, to use Spinoza’s language, and they are always related to external relations to an external body. The waves on my body, which might be nice, but also could be quite dangerous (these are the screams and shouts one hears on the beach all day, which generally one takes to be an expression of happiness, but there is always the threat of tragedy on the horizon, otherwise there would be no lifeguard). But what does it mean to know how to swim? How come that is not the same? It does not mean, Deleuze says, that I have to have a mathematical or physical understanding of wave mechanics. That would be going too far. Rather, as they say in French, one has a savoir faire of the wave. Instead of fighting against the wave, one goes with it, one has rhythm. In the sense one knows how to compose one’s body with the body of the wave. One knows the right moment to jump in, when to dive, to surface, to use the wave to propel one along, and so on. It is important not to think that the second level is mathematical. Mathematics is kind of second level knowledge, but it isn’t what this knowledge is tout court.

Just as one can speak of knowing how to swim, Deleuze says, one can speak of knowing how to love. How does someone love inadequately? Just as in the case of the wave, one who does not know how to swim, one is at the mercy of external effects of which one does not know the causes. Whereas to know how to love is to know how to compose one’s body and mind with another. This is a strange kind of happiness, Deleuze says, but no-one would confuse it with mathematics or physics.

What then is the third kind of knowledge? It hardly seems possible that such a thing could exist. It does so because the other two are relations to external bodies and not to essences. I either know how to compose with another body, or I do not, but neither the relation of composition or decomposition is an essence. What is an essence Spinoza? It is a degree of power. To have the third level of knowledge is to know (or to intuit, to use Spinoza’s word, so as to distinguish it from the second level of knowledge) what makes up one’s own degree of power and what makes up the other’s degree of power. For every degree of power that is given there is always a degree of power stronger, since the totality of Nature would be infinite degree of power, and no singular thing could be the same as infinite Nature, as this would be to confuse a mode with a substance. Now if we were to view this relation between essences externally, then we would say that the weaker essence would be destroyed by the stronger one (the hand crushes the fly), but if this were the case, Deleuze says the whole of Spinozism would collapse, for it would mean that there would only be inadequate relation between essences. How can we think of the relation between essences in a different way?

The key he says is proposition 37 of part 5, for it explains that the axiom in part 4 that describes the relation between essences as one destroying another only has to do with singular essences in a determinate time and place. What does it mean to think of something in this way? It means to think of it in terms of existence. What does it mean for something to pass into existence at a certain time or place? It means that a body is determined from the outside by other external bodies. I have an essence, you have an essence, each essence is singular, but to exist is to be determined from the outside by other bodies (I cannot exist without food, water and air, for example). To exist is to have a time and a place, and to have a time and place is to exist in relation to other external bodies that determine one from the outside. Until such point that these external bodies enter a different relation, then I exist.

At this level, everything exists at the level of opposition. I kill the pig to eat its meat, but the next day, I die of botulism, and so on. In this case, one might speak of a stronger power destroying a weaker one. Such is the risk of death, which is the inevitable and necessary event that external relations that sustain my body enter a different relationship (which is what we mean by disease). My essence, however, is not the same as the external relations that I have with other bodies. A degree of power describes an intrinsic and not only an extrinsic relation and for this reason it makes no sense for Spinoza to say one degree of power destroys another degree of power, just as much as it does not make any sense to say that the colour red is redder than green. Intensive magnitudes cannot be compared extensively.

What then does it mean for Spinoza to say that one is eternal? It is not a declaration of belief, as if by that one means that one is immortal, for eternity and immortality are not the same. To think that one is immortal is simply to take one’s finite existence and to imagine that it would continue for every, which contradicts the very fact of death. An experience of eternity, on the contrary, Deleuze says, can only be felt as a kind of intensity. It would be to understand that one’s death, as the relation of a body to other external bodies, was insignificant and did not matter, because as intensive parts, singular essences, we all degrees of the infinite power of God.

What matters, what is important, is not the duration of our lives (how long we live), but the actualisation of one’s essence. If one laments a premature death, it is just because they did not live long enough, or that they didn’t actualise what they could have become? Equally, we might think someone who had a lived a long life in years but did not do everything with their lives that they could, might also have lived a sad life. It is perfectly possible to live a short life, as Spinoza did, but intensively as though one where eternal. Intensity, then, would be the measure of the third level of knowledge.

Many find the end of the Ethics incoherent and a contradiction of the overall message of the book. The most notorious of these is Bennett, who pretty much gives up on it altogether. Sometimes one thinks that Bennett doesn’t like Spinoza at all, and one wonders why he is reading him, since most of the time, in his opinion, Spinoza is wrong (Bennett 1984, pp.329–75).[1] I think, however, that Lloyd is absolutely right in stressing that this third level of knowledge is not religious at all, but is merely a taking on board, in terms of our lives and our experiences, what is taught abstractly through definitions and axioms in part one that God is the totality of the universe of which we are an intrinsic part, rather than an element separate from it sustained by a fictional personal God, who in reality is nothing else than a projection of our absurd pride that the universe could have been created for us in the first place (Lloyd 1996, pp.112–13).

One way that people imagine that they have a special and unique place with the universe, rather than just a finite mode of an infinite substance, is to believe that there is immortality of our lives after death. To overcome our fear of death, we imagine that our personality and consciousness continue after we have disappeared. This is not possible for Spinoza, because my sense of myself is only possible because I have a body. My mind, as we learnt from part 2, is an idea of my body, and my body is not an idea of my mind. Without my body I wouldn’t have a mind at all, and any sense of duration, and time would cease to exist. Immortality is based on the false idea that minds can exist without bodies, and no one suggest that bodies are eternal. Combined with this false idea is the confusion of eternity with infinite duration, so that I imagine myself living together as I am now but just for an infinite time.

Eternity does not mean for Spinoza time going on forever, but something quite different. This is why he can say that even though there is no immortality in the way that religions have imagined it, there is part of my mind which is eternal. This seems to be very strange since it implies that the mind can exist without the body, and this cannot be what Spinoza is saying since it would contradict the fact that the mind is the idea of the body. The contradiction exists for us, because we still viewing eternity in terms of duration. We are imagining that mind would continue to exist in the same way as it endures whilst the body exists.

Again the best way to understand the eternity of the mind, as Lloyd suggests, is in relation to the third kind of knowledge (Lloyd 1996, p.121). I only understand myself through the affections of my body, but it is impossible that I could know the infinite network of causes and effects that lead up to this affections. I can know, however, the true status of myself as mode of infinite substance. How would this knowledge, Lloyd asks, overcome my fear of death? Not through the knowledge gained by simply reading the first part of the Ethics, but something more subtle:

What is new is the understanding of the truth of finite modes in relation to particular bodily modifications, and to ourselves as ideas of these modifications. (Lloyd 1996, p.121)

Lloyd continues to explain that is not a matter of ascending to a transcendent vision of the universal, like Plato’s ascent to the beautiful and the vision of the one, but of understanding the ‘actual existence of these affections’ (Deleuze would have said the singular essences). For all that exists for Spinoza are singular things and substance, or the being of singular things. To understand singular things as the expression of substance is different from understanding them in relation to other singular things, which is the basis of the 2nd level of knowledge, which compares one thing with others. This kind of knowledge, though adequate, can never be complete. As Lloyd concludes, ‘we know that we are in God, and are conceived through God; we understand ourselves through God’s essence as involving existence’ (Lloyd 1996, p.122) Having seen this, I can understand that dying is of no consequence to me, since, in understanding myself in relation to substance which is eternal, the greater part of my mind is given over to what is eternal, rather than to what is individual and perishable in me, my imagination and memories.

Works Cited

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

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].

Lloyd, G., 1996. Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics, London; New York: Routledge.

Zizek, S., 2004. Organs without Bodies : On Deleuze and Consequences, New York; London: Routledge.

 


[1]. Surely there is a better way of reading philosophy which isn’t so sad. Perhaps Deleuze’s advice, as quoted by Žižek, is more joyful: ‘Trust the author you are studying. Proceed by feeling your way […]. You must silence the voices of objection with you. You must let him speak for himself, analyse the frequency of his words, the style of his obsessions.’(2004, p.47)

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Spinoza and Truth – Lecture 11

March 30, 2014

20120322_Gartenberg1What does Spinoza mean by truth? When we think about truth normally in philosophy then we think about the agreement between a statement and a state of affairs in the world, but this can’t be what Spinoza means by truth, at least not in any simply way. Why is this? Because for Spinoza truth cannot be the agreement between two different attributes, since attributes can have no causal relation to one another. Thus the idea of ‘tree’ cannot be true because it agrees with an object called a ‘tree’, rather an idea is true because it is true in itself and not because it ‘represents’ something else. What then does it mean to say that an idea is true in itself?

In one sense, Spinoza is repeating the story of truth that we have heard since Plato: perception is not sufficient to explain truth. This is because, as we know, perception does not tell me truth about things at all. Indeed if all I had were perceptions, then I probably wouldn’t have a very good idea of reality at all. One of the basis premises of the new modern science is what common sense tells us about nature (which we might say is the Aristotelian starting point) can only lead us astray. Common sense might tell me that the earth is at the centre of the universe, because that is how it appears to me, but I know in fact that this is not the case. What is true is not what my senses tell me, but what true knowledge does, and true knowledge is not perception, as Plato would have already told us, but mathematics. Copernicus does not disagree with Ptolemy because he saw something different in the heavens, but he postulated a different mathematical model and that is why he saw the heavens in a different way. It might be the case that Galileo did see something different in his telescope, but he wouldn’t have seen what he was looking for unless he had already agreed with Copernicus’s mathematical revolution.

If an idea is not true because it agrees with what I see with my eyes, then why is it true? Here we have to make a difference between the psychological event of having an idea and the content of the idea itself. I might be thinking of a circle because I see a circle. Or I might be thinking of circle because I associate it with something else. Perhaps I have being thinking about bears and then the idea ‘circle’ just pops in my mind. Or, I might be thinking about circle, but I have completely the wrong idea of circle in my mind. I might think lines drawn from the centre of the circle are not equal. None of the instances of thinking of the idea circle would make the idea true. The occasion of thinking the idea does not make the idea true (and this is really the reason why perception cannot be the source of the truth of ideas, since it psychologises them, and would make truth subjective). What is true is the objective content of the idea itself, which can be thought by anyone (or anything if it capable of thinking true ideas).

In proposition 35 of the second part of the Ethics, Spinoza explains how such an error is possible. There is no positive idea of falsehood. Strictly speaking there are no false ideas in themselves, because every idea is an idea of something that exists. Rather there are confused ideas. To have an ignorant idea is to have an idea of a positive thing, but in a confused way. The example that Spinoza gives in the scholium is the idea of freedom. Why is it that people falsely believe they are free? The answer is because they are ignorant of the causes that make them act the way they do. Because they are ignorant, they therefore think they are free. The cause of false ideas is not a real idea, but ignorance on our behalf, and this ignorance is always ignorance about causes. To use the other example that Spinoza gives in this scholium. I believe that the sun is 200 hundred feet away from me because I am ignorant of the true distance. Even though I know that the sun is further away than it seems. Because the distance that it appears from me is caused by the relation of my body to the sun, I might still fall under the error that the sun is closer than the actual distance. Of course I can also understand why it is that the sun appears in the way it does to me (I can understand for example that the sun really doesn’t get larger at sunset or change from yellow to red, but this is the effect of light in the Earth’s atmosphere), but that means I have to have a true idea of what the sun is and what the my body is and how they interact.

Because of our limited knowledge, Spinoza thinks that is very easy for us to have inadequate of idea of things, but does he think that we can have adequate idea? It would surprise us if he said ‘no’ to this questions, since Spinoza is an exponent of the new modern science. He is a realist. He does not think that our scientific theories are just our way of understanding what reality is, but are true picture of what is. Indeed Newton’s laws would be true, even if there were no human being to think them.

The difference is between understanding a particular thing as a mode or as an expression of substance. Let say I look at a stretch of water that is in front of me. I could just describe the water as I see it, perhaps in the way that I writer might describe it in a story, or painter paint it. Or I could describe it in terms of substance. Not just this stretch of water in front of me, but through an attribute that expresses not just this part of reality, but the whole of reality. Isn’t this just what science does? Science does not explain this or that particular instance or occasion of water, but the reality of water as such, which for Spinoza would be explained in the current scientific explanation of nature through the general laws of physics. This would be to have an adequate, as opposed to an inadequate understanding of water, because I would be understanding its true cause, which is substance explained in this case through the attribute extension.

The laws of physics are what Spinoza calls ‘common notions’. The occasion for us to have ideas is our bodies, for this nothing in our minds that does not come via our bodies. Thus if we didn’t have eyes to see the sun, then we wouldn’t have the idea of sun. The error, then is not think that the ‘truth’ of the idea of the sun somehow has its origin in us. We can think the true idea of the sun, because the true idea of the sun corresponds (or is the same as) as the causal relation between the mode and substance. There cannot be any other idea of the sun that is true because nature cannot be any different than what it is, otherwise substance would be lacking that different reality and therefore would not be infinite.

How can we escape the confused ideas of the realm of sensations and affections? We can only do so when we understand ideas internally and not externally. To understand ideas internally means to know the necessary order and connections of ideas themselves and not how they are encountered through affections. Yet even though I might know the difference between the two, how do I take the step from one to the other? It is probably wrong to say that Spinoza rejects imagination, because this would be argue that he rejects the body, but as we know, for Spinoza, only through the body can I know the world. There must then be a route from inadequate to adequate knowledge, and the key is ‘common notions’.

Inadequate knowledge only tells me about my individual encounters with things. What Spinoza calls duration. How something appears to me at a certain time and place, and which I might subsequently remember and associate with other things. But I can, through duration, leap out of duration. I can recognise what is ‘common to all things’. In so doing, I am understanding the mode through substance and not through another modes, which I can only have a limited knowledge of. It is possible to understand the causal relation between substance and modes. It is not possible to understand the infinite causal relation between modes (it is this inadequate understanding we have seen, for example, that produces the error of free will).

It is very important not to confuse common notions with universals. In IIP40S1, Spinoza disputes the existence of universals precisely because they are not common notions. I can have an adequate idea of scientific laws of nature that are common to all bodies, but what I cannot have is the idea of all horses that would be common to the universal ‘Horse’. The latter is merely a word, whereas the former is a true idea. This is why we differ in what we mean by the word ‘horse’, but we do not differ when we understand what is common to all things (like extension and the laws of nature that follow immediately from it), because this is common to nature as such, and not just a use of words. When we understand the universe, we understand it as it is in reality, and our understanding cannot be any different from God’s (what the universe is in reality in terms of truth), because there couldn’t be any other understanding. There is no mysterious transcendent cause, nor any distinctive human understanding (as there is in Kant for example) that would be any different from truth of what is actually in reality, which would be true whether we knew it or not.

It is possible to have adequate ideas because it is possible to know the causes of things. Of course as finite beings, it is not possible to for us to know the cause of everything, but that does not mean that we know nothing. It is possible for us to understand the essence of God for example, for Spinoza. It is possible for us to understand the idea of a triangle, though it is not possible for us to have the idea of every triangle that has ever existed. To have an adequate idea is to understand something through its cause rather than its effects. Thus to have an adequate idea of the sun is to understanding why it makes my skin feels warm and appears closer than it is in reality, as opposed to an inadequate idea, which starts with effects, my warm skin, the appearance of the sun and the sky, and argues backwards towards the cause. The sun is close to me in the sky because it is circling the earth; the sun warms the my skin because it was created by God to benefit human beings. Both these arguments are false because they argue from effects rather than causes. To understand the effects of the sun through its cause is to follow the order of reality itself. It is to go from substance as it expressed through its attributes and then to modes. Rather than to start with modes and to try and get back to attributes and from there to substance.

We have only distinguished between inadequate and adequate knowledge in this lecture, but there is third level of knowledge that Spinoza describes in IIP40S2, which he calls ‘intuitive’. We will have to wait to Part 5 of the Ethics to find out what this.


Spinoza’s Materialism – Lecture 10

March 18, 2014

human-proportions-for-artistsSo 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

March 2, 2014

spinoza1Having 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 is ‘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.


Modes in Spinoza – Lecture 7

February 23, 2014

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.


From Descartes to Spinoza – Lecture 6

January 25, 2014

XIR26256For 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 led 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.


Spinoza: What is Substance? – Lecture 5

December 18, 2013

SpinozaPerhaps one of of the greatest obstacles to modern readers of Spinoza’s 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 greatest obstacles to modern readers of Spinoza 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 have done a basic cause in Greek philosophy might remember 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.[1]

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 person 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 their ‘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.[2] 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 mechanistic 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 principal 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. Or if you like, God was free to create two kinds of finite substance, but he could have created more of different kinds.

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). So for Descartes it is my mind or soul that individualizes me and not my body.

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 principal 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.[3] 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’. We will need to describe the essence of this substance in the next lecture.


[1] ‘Descartes and Substance’ in R. S Woolhouse, The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth Century Metaphysics. London, Routledge, 1993, 14-27.

[2] 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.

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