Descartes and Rationalism – Lecture 2

March 18, 2016

800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesFor the next several weeks we are going to do a quick tour of the history of philosophy. This is not meant to be exhaustive, but give you a general map of some of the key concepts and ideas. Philosophy is not the history of philosophy, but you cannot do philosophy without its history. First of all because all philosophers are in argument with others, and you don’t know what they are arguing about if you don’t have a grasp of the context of their argument. Secondly, there is a lot of technical jargon in philosophy, so if you don’t know what the concepts are, then you can be totally confused (especially since a lot of these concepts sound like words we ordinarily use, and you soon come to realise that ordinary definitions are pretty worthless when it comes to philosophy). Some people argue that history isn’t important in philosophy, but I don’t agree. Philosophy is historical through and through, like any human activity, and the idea that philosophical ideas are timeless and eternal, is itself an historical idea. There seems something very strange to me to treat Plato’s problems as though they were exactly the same as our, and what he meant by the words he used, is the same as what we do, even though there are thousands of years separating us. Of course, in the end history does not answer everything, but not to know the history leaves you very much in the dark.

When we come to read Descartes’ Meditations we can be very blasé about it. Doesn’t everyone know the famous cogito ergo sum, and has the idea that reality is a dream the basis of a very successful movies series?[1] Because we have become very used to Descartes’ ideas, we also think that they are very easy to dismiss and counter, as though we hardly have to think about them at all. To understand Descartes, however, like every philosopher, is to know what his problem was, since metaphysics is always an answer to a problem. His problem wasn’t whether reality existed or not, but what is the status of our scientific theories. Scientists, on the whole, are not interested in metaphysical problems, but of course philosophers are.

Descartes’ Meditations cannot be understood without the rise of new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he was a philosopher, Descartes was a scientist and mathematician. What propelled him towards philosophy, was his worry about the metaphysical consequences of the new science. Something he believed, for example, that Galileo had not been sufficiently concerned.[2] What this new science required was a completely different metaphysics, but before we can understand what this is we need to be aware, if only in a very schematic way, the metaphysics he was rejecting, which was Scholasticism that had its basis in a reworking of Aristotle.

Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield, 2003, pp. 291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red). For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Now the point is, if you are going to reject the scientific account of Aristotelianism, then you are also going to have discard the metaphysics that underpins it. This is what Descartes does and he thinks Galileo doesn’t. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing (if we wish for a total explanation), whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting, I am in fact doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you know, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exist in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. When I perceive a something I exist in perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt of the first meditation, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax example, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair real exists.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appears to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

True, however, only internal to my own thoughts. Not true as true to reality. I still have no idea whether reality is what my ideas say it is, however internally coherent my ideas are. At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

It is at this point that we can get confused about Descartes’ philosophy. We are told that he is a rationalist and that he is attempting to ground the new science in more rigorous metaphysics, but we associate the idea of God with religion, or even worse with superstition. Why would he know introduce God? Isn’t he rejecting reason altogether? This answer to this question is to go back to the problem. The new science postulates a mathematical reality which is not open to the senses. How do I know that this isn’t a fiction? To the practical scientists this is not a problem. She isn’t worried. She just gets on with her experiments. For the philosopher that isn’t enough. He wants to know that reality really is what we say it is. For this we need there is an external guarantee and this is what God is. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, in the conclusion to this this lecture, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[3] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected). It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea (Deleuze, 1978). The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects here, and the best way to think about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams, 2005, p. 124). The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no many philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant who come later), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza wanted to out ‘Descartes’ Descartes.

Spinoza issue’s with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5). For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (Spinoza, 1996, sec. 1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two), which express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain our place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

Ariew, R., 1986. Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology. Synthese 67, 77–90.

Deleuze, G., 1978. Les Cours de Gilles Deleuze [WWW Document]. Sur Spinoza. URL http://www.webdeleuze.com/php/texte.php?cle=14&groupe=Spinoza&langue=2 (accessed 10.9.14).

Hatfield, G., 2003. Routledge philosophy guidebook to Descartes and the meditations. Routledge, London.

Spinoza, B. de, 1996. Ethics. Penguin Books, London; New York.

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry. Psychology Press.


[1] I am thinking of the Matrix trilogy, and the first film in particular.

[2] He believed that although Galileo was to be admired, he tended to rush over the subject matter and not explain it sufficiently. The purpose of Descartes’ project was to set philosophy on firm principles and work from these in a systematic way (Ariew, 1986).

[3] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.


Lecture 1 – Aristotle and the Prime Mover

August 14, 2015

330px-Aristotle_Altemps_Inv8575Aristotle gives us the following definition of God in book Λ of the Metaphysics

We hold then that God is a living being, eternal most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.
(1072b 29-31)

Now this definition would appear at first glance to be wholly appropriate to any monotheistic definition of God. It would seem to be the classical definition of God’s nature that we find in Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Perhaps this should not surprise us, since the source for this classical definition is Greek metaphysics, and Aristotle in particular, first of all through the Arab scholars, and then later through the Jewish and Christian writers. And yet if we read book Λ of the Metaphysics closely we will be able to see that there is a great difference between Aristotle’s proof of God’s existence and the monotheistic experience of God, even though monotheism itself will attempt to use Greek metaphysics to give a rational basis to faith. It is not at all certain, when you look at the details, that monotheism and Greek philosophy quite fit together (and it these differences, however small, that will interest us in this course). You can look at this in two ways: that monotheism is beyond philosophy, or more negatively, if you think religion must have a rational basis, then philosophy cannot in the end give a rational justification to monotheistic religion, and thus religion must be irrational and superstitious.

Book Λ begins with substance, which could be said to be the general topic of the Metaphysics, since, and this is rushing it a bit, substance is Aristotle’s definition of the meaning of being in general: everything that is, is a substance.[1] But the question of substance here, at the beginning of the book, is a particular one: ‘our inquiry is concerned with substance: for it is the principle and causes of substance that we are investigating’ [1069a18-19]. ‘Principle’ can also be translated as ‘origin’. In Greek, this is ἀρχή. Thus, the question of book Λ is a particular question about substance. It is asking about the origin and cause of substance. But what substance are we talking about? Are we talking about a particular substance within the world, as when a child asks a parent where babies come from, or are we asking about the origin and cause of the universe itself, and thus the primary philosophical question as to why there is something rather than nothing; that is to say, the reason why the universe as a whole exists.

What Plato and Aristotle have in common, and which is also shared with other Greek philosophers, and most notably the Pre-Socratics, is a commitment to a rational explanation of the universe. What is the fundamental and basic principle of the existence of the universe? Does the universe just happen by chance or is there a reason for its existence? To argue that it happens by chance would be ultimately to give up any rational explanation of the universe altogether. To say that it exists by chance is not give a reason for the universe, but to give up on reason altogether. Equally if one is committed to a rational explanation of the universe, then mythic or religious stories about the creation of the universe will not do either. For they, precisely in the manner in which they present themselves, are only stories and not rational explanations. This does not mean that there is not a rational core at the heart of these myths, but it is the aim of the philosopher to find out what this nucleus is, and to give it a rational explanation. One way of understanding what Aristotle is doing is that he is pushing this rational explanation to its ultimate conclusion.

Aristotle tells us that we must distinguish between 3 kinds of substance: ‘Now there are three kinds of substance. One is sensible [αἱσθητόϛ] (and maybe either eternal [ἀίδιος] or perishable [φθαρτός] […] Another is immutable [ἀκίνητος]’ [1069a30-34]. We might rephrase the question of Book Λ, then, to what is the relation between these different kinds of substance: perishable, eternal and immutable substance? The first and important distinction that we need to emphasise is that Aristotle’s concept of the universe is not merely a split between the finite, on the one hand, and the infinite on the other, or the sensible and the intelligible; rather the sensible realm is itself split into two. This is why there are three kinds of substance. Again this is one important reason why Aristotle’s universe and the monotheistic one, at least in its orthodox guise, cannot be mapped totally one on to the other. For in the latter, the universe is split into two (or better, the universe itself is distinguished from an ‘extra-universe’ domain that is transcendent), between the finite and the infinite, the former being non-eternal, or perishable to use Aristotle’s terminology, and the latter eternal. That we are faced with 3 substances, here, rather than just 2, already shows us that we not in the monotheistic world view. For Aristotle, the universe as such is eternal, and does not require a first cause to come into existence. Of course for monotheism this would be unthinkable, for this would deny the perfection of God, since there would be something outside independent of God’s existence. The eternal world, the universe, already exists for Aristotle. It is not issue for him to explain its existence. Rather, as we shall see, the problem for him, is how to explain its motion.

To understand why Aristotle believes there is eternal sensible substance we need to be aware of conception of the universe that he had at the time. What is important is that this is a scientific picture of the universe, and not a mythical or straightforwardly religious one. It is Aristotle’s science that requires the supplement of theology, and not his theology, science. In other words, God for Aristotle is a necessary hypothetical deduction of physics, and more specifically astronomy, and not something that one would pray to or make sacrifices for. The latter belongs to the human culture and not to the structure of the universe and would properly be the object of study of history or poetry.

Aristotle’s universe has three levels: at the centre of the universe there is earth, which is the mundane or sublunary world. On earth, there is only perishable substances – plants and animals to use Aristotle’s example. What Aristotle means by perishable sensible substance are those substances that are generated and destroyed in the constant cycle of life and death to which man also belongs. Above this sphere are the heavenly spheres of the sun, moon planets and stars. These substances, unlike the perishable substances are eternal, for they travel in an infinite circular movement without beginning or end. The third and final kind of substance is immutable substance, which unlike both sensible perishable substance, and eternal substance, is not moving (ἀκίνητος means ‘no motion’ and thus ‘unmoved’ or ‘motionless’), and for this reason must be considered as being separate or apart from the other substances.[2]

Aristotle’s universe should be seen as continuum of causality. Here on earth one perishable substance causes another perishable substance to be either generated or destroyed. And yet without the eternal substances the perishable substances would not exist. For without the eternal movement of heavenly spheres there would be no life on Earth (the movement of the sun causes the movement of seasons, which is the origin of the succession of generations here on earth). The relation between the sublunary world and the heavenly sphere is, for Aristotle, the subject matter of physics. What does not properly belong to physics is the other relation between the heavenly spheres and immutable substance. If perishable substance requires eternal substance and the argument is that it must require eternal substance for without it there would be no time, and without time there would be no change, see 1071b5-12), then why does eternal substance require immutable substance? Could they not, for example, move themselves? Why should they require some other motion in order to move?

To answer this question we have to understand how Aristotle understands change (or motion as he calls it) from the Physics. He repeats the argument of the Physics in book Λ of the Metaphysics. Change is change from some subject to some object by means of an agent. The wood changes to ash by means of fire. The agent is that which causes the change or movement. There are for Aristotle four kinds of change: change in substance, quantity, quality and place (see, 1069b8-15). These four kinds of cause can occur also in two different ways: either by art (the carpenter makes the wood into a table), or by nature. In the first case something is caused by something else, and in the latter change is self caused. The other two causes are negations of these two: chance or spontaneity (see, 1070a4-9). The relation between the agent of causality and the subject of causality must be understood, for Aristotle, through the distinction between potentiality and actuality. Thus, the substance that is changed must have the potential to be that substance that it is changed into. In other words, if wood did not have the potential to be ash, it could never actually become ash: ‘Everything is generated from that which is, but is potentially and is not actually’ 1069b19-20. And yet, what is potential can only be actualised by another actuality. There must be something that causes a potentiality within something to change into an actuality, and that cause must in the end be something actual, otherwise we would only have an infinite chain of potentialities and nothing would be actual. We can see, therefore, that Aristotle’s physics, his conception of change or motion, actually necessitates the existence of an ultimate cause, for without it no substance would exist at all, since, nothing, so to speak would be actualised.

How does the same argument, however, fit with the notion of the eternal substances? For are have they not always existed and therefore do not need to be brought into exist? Nonetheless, Aristotle criticises those philosophers (and he names Plato and Leucippius) who simply assert that there is eternal motion without questioning why there is such a motion (1071b32-35). There can only be two answers to this question: either the eternal spheres are self-movers or they move themselves. But even if the eternal spheres move themselves, then they can only do so potentially, for they must be some cause that causes them to actualise this potentiality, and this cause must be a pure actuality, for if it were a potentiality, then the universe would only potential exist, which is impossible.

It is as this precise point that Aristotle’s argument diverges from Plato. As we have already pointed out, what is common to them both is a rational explanation of the origin of the universe. Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? Physics and astronomy show us that the universe has a rational order. So the question then becomes why is the universe rational rather than irrational? If we reply that this is a matter of chance, then we are saying that the rational has its source in the irrational, which would mean, in the end, that the rational is irrational. The question is, then, what is the rational source of the rational. The rational source of the rational is rationality itself. The word that both Plato and Aristotle use to express the rational basis of the rational is νοῦς (nous), which we might translate as ‘reason’ or ‘thinking’.

Of course when we think of thinking we think of someone thinking, as though the universe came into existence becomes someone thought it into existence (this is a particular way of thinking creation, for example, which is absent in Aristotle’s account). This is not how Aristotle thinks of νοῦς. It is the virtue of the universe being rational as such. When we look at the universe we see that if follows regular laws. The sun, stars, and the planets move in regular movements in the sky, and the seasons follow one another here on earth. It is this regularity or continuity that is the meaning of νοῦς. What Aristotle is doing in the Metaphysics is purifying this principle of any anthropomorphism. To think of the rational order of the universe as a self-moving soul is to still picture it in human terms, as though it were imposing order on chaos from the outside. For Aristotle, on the contrary, the universe is immanently ordered.

If we were to think of νοῦς as a self moving, then we have to provide an argument as to why it moved itself. I might move myself towards the kettle to make a cup of tea, but there must be a reason for me to do so (ultimately this reason would have something to do with my body, which is thirsty). A self moving mover, therefore, has the potenitial to move, but to actualise this move, there must be a reason to do so. If we imagine the origin of the universe to be a self moving, then there would have to be an exterior reason why such being would create the universe, in the same way that we need to explain why I moved towards the kettle. For Plato the first mover cannot act without changing itself, but this would involve an infinite regress (what causes this change, and so on). To solve this problem, Aristotle separates movement and activity. There can be a pure activity that does not require the agent to change. It is this pure activity that is the unmoved mover of the origin of the lawful universe. Self movement, for Aristotle, still requires a potential to move and one would still have to supply a reason for the actualisation of this potentiality. A self-mover, then, could not be an ultimate explanation.

Let us summarise Aristotle’s argument before we explain what this pure actuality is. The eternal movement of the heavens is a fact. It is observed and explained by physics and astronomy. But we need to postulate another kind of substance that causes the movement of the heavenly spheres. This third kind of cause must itself be eternal, but also, unlike eternal sensible substance, it must be a pure actuality; that is to say, that it itself must not be actualised by any higher kind of substance. For without postulating this pure actuality we would only have potential movement: ‘There is something which moves without being moved; something eternal which is both substance and actuality’ [1072a24-26].

The only questions that remain is how this immutable substance causes the eternal substance to move, and what a pure actuality might be. This is the proper subject matter of theology in Aristotle’s sense. It is clear that is far more restricted than any monotheistic theology in the classical tradition, which is concerned not merely with a rational explanation of the universe, but also with a belief in a personal God. Even in this restricted theology, however, we shall see that Aristotle’s definition of God, which from the quote that begins this lecture would appear to have similarities with the monotheistic definition of God, is in fact not at all like this monotheistic God. The most important lesson to learn from reading book Λ of the Metaphysics in detail is to see that relation of the immutable substance to sensible substance is not at all like the relation between the Creator the created in monotheism. The unmoved mover is not God in this sense.

The first way to see this is that Aristotle makes it quite clear that the causal relation between the unmoved mover and the heavenly spheres is not an efficient one. The unmoved mover does not cause the heavenly spheres to move in the sense that an architect causes the house to exist. And yet efficient causality is precisely the way that Christian natural theology conceives of the relation between the creator and the created, for unlike Aristotle the universe is eternal. If the unmoved mover does not move the heavenly spheres efficiently, then how does it? Aristotle is very clear about this – in terms of final causality. For it is only in terms of final causality that one can conceive of substance that is unmoved and yet causes motion. The unmoved mover is therefore the object of desire of the soul of the eternal substance: ‘it causes motion as being an object of love, whereas all other things cause motion because they themselves are in motion’ 1072b3-4. Desire itself, for Aristotle, is subordinate to thought, for without being able to think something as desirable then one would not be able to desire it – desire, as Gerson rightly explains, is a ‘cognitive activity’.[3] Thought itself is moved by the intelligible, therefore the ultimate cause must be pure intelligibility.

What is this prime mover? Since it is actuality without any potentiality it must be identified with the highest kind of actuality that is thinking. We need to be very careful here. God for Aristotle does not think thoughts, for this thought are potentialities, for one could always think something else. God must think that which is most divine and that which does not change and that is pure intelligibility, or mind God is mind thinking itself thinking, which is in the end Aristotle’s definition of God: ‘thinking thinking thinking’ (ἔστιν ἡ νόησις νοήσεως νόησις) 1074b35.


[1] For a very schematic account of Aristotle’s metaphysics, see our lecture ‘Aristotle’.

[2] Because Aristotle rejects Plato’s account of separation (that the form of gold exist separately from instances of gold) does not mean that he rejects all separation. The heavenly spheres are separate from sublunary world, as the immaterial is from the material. See, Stephen Menn, ‘Aristotle and Plato on God as Nous and as the Good’, The Review of Metaphysics, 45 (1992), 543–73.

[3] Lloyd P Gerson, God and Greek Philosophy: Studies in the Early History of Natural Theology (London; New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 124.


Descartes and the New Metaphysics – Lecture 2

March 22, 2015

800px-Frans_Hals_-_Portret_van_René_DescartesIf Galileo is the name that stands for the emergence of a new science and a new way of looking at the world, then Descartes is the one who grounds it in a new metaphysics.[1] For the scientist, who is dismissive of the need for philosophy, since for her it is only important if her model works, this is of no importance, but in the history of philosophy, he institutes a whole new way of thinking that all subsequent philosophy has to answer to.

One of the difficulties of reading Descartes, at least if you don’t read him in too much detail, and jump over the things he says that seem anachronistic, their main ideas have become such a part of our philosophical culture, indeed our culture as a whole (who has not heard of the famous cogito ego sum), that we can just read him without really making any attempt to understand. Moreover, the apparent ease of our interpretation means we can even think that we can easily dismiss these arguments, because everyone knows them and they hardly require any thought whatsoever. This is especially the case when we come to his famous proof of the existence of God, which we can dismiss with great ease if we are not aware of what problem it answers. Indeed the problem is more interesting than the question.

The simplicity of this reading has more to do with our ignorance, however, rather than our deep understanding. It is because we are unaware of the context of Descartes’ argument, why he wrote what he did, and especially their revolutionary nature, that we can easily be misled as to their depth and originality. The most important element of this context is the rise of the new sciences in the 16th and 17th century. Before he saw himself as a philosopher, Descartes viewed himself (if these different functions were really as separable to him and his contemporaries, as they might be to us), as a scientist and a mathematician. He wrote a philosophy as a defence of the new science, and the importance of the mathematical method, rather than just a work of philosophy in itself.

If we are going to understand how revolutionary the new science was, and why Descartes believed it required a different metaphysics to support it, then we have to recognise, if however succinctly and briefly, that metaphysics it rejected, which was Aristotelianism. Aristotle’s understanding of nature was the dominant picture of reality. The problem of dislodging this picture was not just that the new science rejected it, but that its hold on people’s imaginations was so prevalent and dominant. This is because Aristotle’s philosophy is the philosophy of common sense. It describes what we see around us, and thus to reject it is to reject everything we know around us. We can see why Descartes’ method is sceptical, because before he can reinstitute the new science on a secure ground, he must first of all get us to reject what we ordinarily take to be knowledge of the world. It is not enough to reform our current views; we have to reject them completely.

Such a revolutionary change, one we are still living with, is obvious in the famous rejection of the geostatic universe for a heliocentric one, but it is perhaps a more ordinary example that might make it clearer for us exactly what is at stake here. Let us compare, therefore, an Aristotelian account of vision from a Cartesian one (Hatfield 2014, pp.291–4). We today might be very blasé about Descartes’ mechanical explanation of colour, because we take for granted the physiological explanation of colour (colour is nothing but the interaction of the spectrum of light with the retina), but it would have sounded strange to his contemporaries. In the Aristotelian conception of sensation, my perception of external objects is caused by the real qualities of those objects. Thus if I see a red rose then my perception of ‘red’ is caused by the red qualities of that rose. The red exists in the rose, travels to my eye, and thereby causes my sensation of red. As we can see, this seems to be a very common sense view of what happens when we see things (and there are probably people who still think that this is what it means to physically ‘see’ the colour red).

For Descartes, on the contrary, there are no ‘red’ things as such. On the contrary, for Descartes, nature is nothing but matter in motion. Matter is corpuscular (infinitely divisible particles). The quality of red in the object, therefore, and its interaction with the eye, can be explained by the shape, size and motion of these particles. Colour is caused by the surface of the object I am looking at, which refracts light particles that interact with the eye. Descartes is not denying that we see red, but that red cannot be explained by a real quality called red. Rather the phenomenon ‘red’ requires a deeper explanation that can only be provided scientifically through the kind of mechanical model that Descartes describes

Although there are specific problems with Descartes’ explanation of colour, which will wait for the modern developments in optics, we can see that we are in two totally different scientific worlds. Fundamentally for Aristotle, everything that exists is explained through form and matter. It is the form of something that explains what it is. Thus to understand what it a tree is one has to understand the ‘form’ tree. If we are looking at an oak tree, then the form would be contained in the acorn. This is true, just as much for animate as well as inanimate things. So to explain the sun, we also have to understand the form of the sun, as well as its material existence (which for Aristotle was the four elements, plus the mysterious fifth one, aether). For Descartes, there is only a material explanation of nature. If one wants to understand the sun, then one needs to understand the nuclear fusion of hydrogen to helium. Moreover, these material laws are the same for all objects in nature and the whole of nature itself. The explanation of our sun would be the same as for all suns in the universe, and these explanations would be would be the same for everything that exists (that is, matter in motion, which can be mathematical defined).

The different physics of Aristotle and Descartes means that they have completely different metaphysics. The basis of the universe for Aristotle is individual substances. Because matter is not sufficient to explain what it is to be something, there cannot be a material explanation of nature. Each thing is an individual substance, which is the specific conjunction of form and matter, whether we are speaking of a tree or animal, me or you, the sun and the other stars. For Descartes, there is only one thing that exists and that is matter in motion, and every individual thing we see is only a property or a mode of this one material substance. Things differ only because matter differs (there is a difference is shape, size and motion of particles), not because there is an extrinsic difference between them. We can see in Aristotle’s metaphysics, that we need an explanation for each thing, whereas for Descartes, we only need a few simple laws of motion (three), in order to explain everything that we see, and that these simple laws of motion, since they have to only to do with shape, size and motion, can be explained quantitatively (that is mathematically) other than qualitatively in the Aristotelian system.

Only now with this scientific background, can we really begin to understand the Meditations. Descartes’ scepticism, at the beginning, then, is not merely an amusing thought experiment, which will later become the plot of the film Matrix, but presupposes the fundamental break that modern science has taken with the common sense perception of the world. For the hypothesis that nature is matter in motion is precisely that a hypothesis, which one can quite literally not see, and thus what I see cannot itself be true. Thus, the task for Descartes is not to destroy our knowledge of the world, but to rebuild it, but where the foundations will be more secure, no longer resting on our fallible senses, but reliable understanding and reason. Scepticism is not employed for its own sake, or even to make philosophy impossible, but on the contrary, to make our knowledge of the world even more certain, by showing that sceptical arguments can be defeated if our metaphysics is robust enough.

It is for this reason why Descartes takes his doubt much further than classical scepticism. We should not only doubt our senses, for we know that they tell us lies about the world (is that pencil really bent that I see in the glass of water), but also the world of mathematics and even the status of reality itself. How do I know that this is not all a dream, since my dreams have been as vivid as my perception of the world right now, and why it is not possible that a malicious demon hasn’t put into my head the idea that 4+4 = 8, when it really is 9?. Now all these sound a bit excessive if we don’t know the scientific context of these doubts. If the truth of reality is in fact mathematical, then the question Descartes is really asking is how I know that this mathematical reality is real, when there is nothing in my ordinary experience that would verify it.

If I can doubt everything in reality, even that my mathematical ideas are a true representation of what is real, then there is one thing, Descartes argues, that I cannot doubt, and that is I am thinking. For even if I doubt everything, there is one thing I cannot doubt and that is in the very act of doubting. What is important at this point in Descartes’ argument is not to confuse the status of the ‘I’ in the statement ‘I think therefore I am’. This I is not me as physical being. The ‘I’ that stands before you now, the ‘I’ that is writing this lecture on the computer. My physical reality is just as doubtful as the reality of the rest of physical nature. Also this ‘I’ only exists in the very moment of thinking. Only in the very act of thinking can the ‘I’ be said to exist, because it is self-refuting to argue otherwise. Even if I say, ‘I do not exist’, it is I who am thinking this, and so must exist in the moment I think it.

Though the cogito is very limited in one sense, it also includes a lot more than one might first assume. First of all Descartes includes all acts of consciousness, such remembering, desires, and most importantly for us, perceiving. Thus when I desire something, I exist in the moment of desiring, when I remember something I exist in the moment of remembering it, and when I perceive something, I exist in the moment of perceiving it. Of course, following from radical doubt, I don’t know whether what I perceive is the same as what is in reality (it really could be all a dream, or mathematical code as in the film Matrix), but I cannot doubt that I am perceiving the chair. Secondly, and this is going to be very important when we come to look at the wax, the content of what I think, desire, remember and perceive is also real Again, it is not real, as in ‘out there’, but real in my mind. So when, I am thinking, remembering, desiring, perceiving a chair, I really am thinking, remember, desiring, perceiving a chair, even though I don’t know whether a chair really exists.

What is going here, which is very important for understanding Descartes’ metaphysics, is that he is totally changing our idea of truth. Normally when we think of truth (and it should not surprise us, when we think of what we said about science above, that this too has a long Aristotelian heritage), we think of it as adequation. That is, we think that truth is about how we speak about the external world. When I say to you ‘There is chair’, you take this statement to be true, because there is a chair in the real world that corresponds to the statement. Now Descartes’ cannot appeal to this notion of truth, because at the moment of the status of the real world has been bracketed (I don’t know whether the world is true or not). He therefore replaces the truth as adequation, with truth as coherence. An idea is true because it is clear and distinct in my mind. The cogito is therefore a measure of what it is to be true since is self-evident that to have a thought there must be an ‘I’ that thinks it. But we can also say that the idea of triangle as a three sided figure is true, whereas the idea of square circle is not. Not because there are no square circle in the world, but because the idea itself does not make sense, since it is incoherent.

When we come to the example of the wax in the third mediation, therefore, we can become completely confused if we think Descartes is talking about the external perception of the wax, because this is precisely what he has given up (we don’t know what the real wax is, because we don’t even know if reality is real). What he is describing is our idea of the wax, how the wax appears to us, even if we don’t whether the wax is real or not. His first description, then, is how the idea of wax appears to us when we take the wax as something we perceive, but perception means here, perception as an action of thought (I am thinking about how the wax is perceived by me), and not perception as the sensation of an external object that I take to exist really outside of me and which effects my sense and which I then think of as was (our example of real qualities and the red flower above). If we were to take that Descartes was doing the latter, then we would be confusing him with Aristotelian account of perception.

What then do I think I perceive when I think that the idea of wax is sensation? I have a list of properties that describe the wax. It smells of flowers; it tastes of honey; it makes a sound when you tap it; it is hard and cold to the touch; and it is white and the shape of a cube. Doesn’t this, then, tell us exactly what the wax is. Why would we need to know anymore? We remember, though that Descartes is sitting in a warm room (it tells us at the beginning of the Meditations). With the heat of the room, all the properties of the wax change: there is no fragrance of flowers; no sweetness of honey; no sound when a hit it; it is not hard and cold; it is no longer white and shaped like a cup. How, therefore, can the sense tell us what the wax is, since now it is completely change. The idea of the wax under the thought of perception is a completely confused idea. However, even though I know the wax has completely changed, it is nonetheless the same piece of wax that remained the same throughout this transformation. What is this wax? It can’t be the list of properties of the sensation because these are completely different. It must be what remains when we strip away all these properties that have changed in our idea of the wax itself. What is it that remains? It is the idea of the body in general as ‘something extended, flexible and changeable’. [AT VII, 30] Although I cannot experience this body, since it would have innumerable shapes that I cannot imagine, I nonetheless can think it, and the idea of this body is less confused and incoherent understanding of the wax in general, than what is present by the idea of sensation. Going back to Descartes’ definition of truth, it is, therefore more true.

At this point we haven’t got outside the cogito itself. I can say that the idea of extension as the correct understanding of bodies, rather than their real qualities, might make more sense, but it does not mean that the what the wax is in the real world is anything like that at all. At this stage, extension (that matter is extended in three dimensions) as the explanation of all the phenomena we see, including the secondary phenomena of the senses, is merely a hypothesis. To prove that nature in itself is like that, we need to get outside of our minds. But how are going to do that? Through the proof of the existence of God, because the idea of God is a very strange idea, and necessitates the actual existence of the content of the idea, in the way that no other idea I have does.

Descartes is not the first philosopher to use the ontological proof for the existence of God, but it does have a particular form in his philosophy, so it is worth going into it in a little more detail. Also, we need to remember what kind of work the proof is doing. Descartes is not proving the existence of God because he lacks faith. He already believes in God. He does not need a proof. We are speaking here of a philosophical concept of God and not a religious one (although as we shall see with Spinoza’s criticism of Descartes, he might sneak a theological notion within this concept). The concept of God is solving a philosophical problem for Descartes, how do we know that are scientific hypothesis that we cannot see with our senses, is actually telling us the truth about the world, and not a crisis of faith.

One of the problems for the modern reader following Descartes proof is that he uses Scholastic terminology that they might not know.[2] Let us briefly explain this jargon before we look at the argument itself. When it comes to ideas in our minds, Descartes makes three important distinctions: objective reality, formal reality and eminent reality. The objective idea of the triangle is the idea of the triangle insofar as it represents a thing. The objective reality is not the thing represented, but the representation. One of the best ways to think of this is in terms of the operation of an image, though we should be careful here not thinking that Descartes thought that all representation were images. Thus when we say that a picture is a picture of something we can distinguish between what the picture is and what the picture represents. In the case of a picture of a tree for example, we can distinguish between the picture and the tree that is represented in the picture.

What is much more difficult is the idea of formal reality in Descartes. It is much more difficult because Descartes himself seems to be confused about it. We could interpret formal reality to be the actual existence of the thing that is represented in the idea. But this would admit the existence of external things, whereas we are only talking about the nature of ideas. Formal reality is the part of the definition of the idea and not the description of a thing. Many misunderstandings of Descartes have to do with confusing the formal reality of the idea with the reality of a thing. On the contrary, the formal reality of the idea describes the status of the idea itself. Whatever idea we speak of and whatever this idea might represent, the idea itself exists. Again if we go back to our picture example, being mindful that ideas are not pictures for Descartes, so that this is only an analogy, then we can make a distinction between the picture, on the one hand, and what the picture represents on the other. Now the picture, on this analogy, is the formal idea. That is to say idea of the tree itself, and not the tree that is represented in the idea.

Now for Descartes ideas themselves and not just what they represent in the idea, have degrees of reality. The best way to understand what Descartes means by ‘degrees of reality’ here is degree of perfection, otherwise again you are going to get confused and think that he is speaking about real external things. Now for Descartes it is possible to say that some ideas, formally speaking are more perfect than other’s. The idea itself is more perfect and not just what is represented in the idea (though it is true to say that when we are speaking about perfection these two are connected).. It is the idea itself that is more perfect, that is to say its formal reality, and not just what is represented in the idea, that is to say its objective reality. The idea of God does not just have more objective reality than the idea of frog; rather it has more formal reality than any other idea (Deleuze 1978). The idea of God, therefore, for Descartes, has eminent reality. Of course the immediate question we need to ask is why is the idea of God more perfect than any other idea? But before we get to this question we need to think about how Descartes explains the relation between objective and formal reality, for this is the basis of the proof of the existence of God

This relation is essentially causal for Descartes. That is to say that the formal idea is the cause of the objective idea. We might put it this way. In the absence of the idea of the frog, they would be no ‘frog’ as an object of the idea. This means for Descartes that the idea of the frog, it formal reality, is the cause of the objective reality of the frog. It is not just the causality of ideas that we need to be aware of, but also, as we have already seen, that reality means for Descartes ‘degrees of perfection’. The proof for the existence of God is a combination of causality and perfection. Thus the formal reality not only causes the objective reality to exist, but also the degree of perfection that this idea has. Descartes regards it as a fundamental axiom that more cannot come from less. If the formal reality is the cause of the objective reality, then there must be as much reality in the formal reality as there is in the objective reality. We need to be very careful that we are speaking about ideas and not objects, and the best way to think about it is again in terms of a picture. Descartes’ argument is that a picture will have more reality than any other one the more reality that the object of the picture has. Thus to use Bernard William’s example: a picture of a pile of sticks will have less reality than a picture of a complex machine, precisely because the complex machine, as an objective reality, has more reality than a pile of sticks (Williams 2005, p.124). The best way to think of the relation between objective and formal relations, when it comes causality and perfection, is therefore backwards. From the complexity of the object of thought we go back to the complexity of the idea which is the origin of this thought.

The question, then, is how I get from this relation between formal and objective reality of ideas to the proof of the existence of God. Again we need to remember that this is a causal relation for Descartes. The idea must have as much reality, perfection or complexity, as the object that it represents. In Descartes language, it contains formally as much reality as the object contains objectively. But this does not present it having more reality than the object it represents. In this instance, Descartes says it contains eminently what the object of thought only contains formally. But how does this further distinction get us any closer to the idea of God? Descartes asks whether it is possible that there is one idea that contains formally what I cannot be the cause of objectively; that is to say, whether there is an idea whose objectively reality, whose object of thought cannot have its origin in me.

Thus if I look at all the content of my ideas, I can see that they can all have their origin in me, but the objective reality of the formal idea of God cannot. Why is that? What is it about the idea of God that means that its objective reality cannot be inside of me and that it must exist outside of me? It is because the very formal idea of God, the definition of God, contains an objective reality that I could not be the cause of because I know that I myself am an imperfect being. We have already agreed that what has less perfection cannot be the cause of something that has more perfection. I could be, Descartes argues, the cause of all my other ideas, since objectively they contain nothing more than I contain formally, but I cannot be the origin of the content of the formal idea of God, the objective reality of God, since this objective reality contains more perfection than I do. That is to say my picture of God is less than the objective reality of the idea, and thus could not be its cause. This idea must be caused by something that existed outside of me, and it must contain formally speaking as much reality as the objective reality of the idea of God. Only God could be the cause of the idea of God.

So the idea of God necessarily proves that God exists and we have a little chink in the armour of the cogito. There is one thing I know that exist outside of my idea of it, and that is God. But why would that solve my problem with the wax. Why would the existence of God demonstrate that my idea of wax must be what the wax is in nature? It is the existence of God that guarantees the existence of external objects, and also that my idea of these objects correspond to the true nature of external objects. What I can clearly and distinctly perceive is true, but without God this truth would not be sufficient, since although I am perceiving this truth in my mind, there might be nothing like it in the outside world. If I can prove that God exists, then it follows that everything depends upon him, since God is the only perfection, and such a God could not deceive me. It follows, therefore, what I clearly and distinctly perceive, and I can remember having done so, must be actually true.

The success of Descartes’ metaphysical project rests on the existence of God. It would not surprise many readers that no many philosophers, even immediately so, were convinced by it. Cartesian science itself was pretty much left behind with the success of Newton (though he was clearly influenced by Descartes). However, I want to refer to one important critique of Descartes, which is Spinoza. He was as rationalist as Descartes (and thus his critique is very different from the empiricists and Kant who come later), but his argument with Descartes is that he did not take his ideas seriously enough. In other words, Spinoza wanted to out Descartes Descartes.

Spinoza issue’s with Descartes is that he smuggles a theological conception of God into his philosophical idea of God, and that is the idea of creation. There are in fact three substances in Descartes: the two finite substances, mind and matter, and the infinite substance God. This mirrors the theological distinction in the idea of creation of the difference between transcendence and immanence. Now the transcendent God is beyond the comprehension of the finite mind (this is the turning point of the ontological proof for Descartes, I know that God exists, but I don’t know what God is, and God in his absolute power could have created a world in which triangles have 4 sides and 2+2=5). For Spinoza this is absurd. If there were a difference between an infinite God and a finite world, then God would not be infinite, since God would lack something; that is the finite world that is different from him. Also God could not be governed by different laws (as though God were a capricious tyrant), because this would mean that laws that came from God could have been different, but this too would mean that God would lack something, which would be the laws that he did not create. If God is infinite, and we start with this infinite, then the idea of transcendent wilful God that is still at the heart of Descartes’ project (which Spinoza will explain is only anthropomorphic idea of God), must be a fiction. ‘God,’ Spinoza writes, is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things’ (1P18).

Rather than explaining attributes in relation to infinite substance, Descartes has explained substance in relation to attributes, and this is why he has ended up with three substances, rather than one unique substance, God, whose essence must infinite attributes (not just two) that express themselves through infinitely many things and ideas. We must begin, Spinoza is saying, with the infinite universe and explain are place within it, rather than projecting an image of ourselves onto this infinite universe.

Bibliography

Ariew, R., 1986. Descartes as Critic of Galileo’s Scientific Methodology. Synthese, 67(1), pp.77–90.

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 October 9, 2014].

Hatfield, G.C., 2014. The Routledge guidebook to Descartes’ Meditations,

Williams, B., 2005. Descartes: The Project of Pure Enquiry, Psychology Press.


[1] He believed that although Galileo was to be admired, he tended to rush over the subject matter and not explain sufficiently. The purpose of Descartes’ project was to set philosophy on firm principles and work from these in a systematic way (Ariew 1986).

[2] This shows that Descartes was not as far from the Scholastics as some have presented him, and indeed, how he sometimes presents himself.


Galileo and the Science of Nature – Lecture 1

March 6, 2015

GalileoWe are interested in science as part of intellectual history. We are not, therefore, concerned whether Galileo’s theories are correct or not in terms of the scientific conception of truth, however mistrustful we might be of such a way of thinking about truth. Nor do we need do pay attention to the specifics of Galileo’s theories, as though we were studying physics, though does not mean that details of his interpretations of nature will be of no concern at all. Rather, what matters to us is how, as non-scientists, our conception of the world has completely changed because of Galileo’s achievements. We live in a completely different world view because of the rise of experimental science in the 16th and 17th centuries, and this has profoundly altered the way we view nature. Galileo’s name, therefore, marks an epochal change in our history, and the present cannot be understood without it.

Before, however, we discuss what it is that is so important about Galileo, let us first say a few things about ‘intellectual history’ or the ‘history of ideas’, which we began to talk about last week. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, what do we mean by history? The fundamental basis of history must be time, for if we were not temporal beings; that is, had a sense of our own past, present and future, then our history as such would not have a meaning for us. Thus, we can talk about this history of rocks, but it unclear that rocks have a history for themselves. Likewise, we can talk about the history of lions, but they themselves do not have their own history.

The time of history is not the same as clock time, though it can be measured by clock time (we say that such and such an historical event happened at such a date and such a time), because it is our own experience of time that is the basis of clock time, and not clock time the basis of our experience of time. Human beings were already historical, have a sense of their own lives and death, and their place in the sweep of generations, long before clock time became the representation of lived time. If we first of all did not live in time, then there would be no calendars and clocks to measure it.

What do we mean by the past of history? It cannot mean just what once happened in the present and now has disappeared into past only to be retrieved in the present like a fish pulled out of the river gasping for air on the bank. In some sense, isn’t the past ahead of us rather than in front of us? Heidegger in Being and Time speaks of there being two meanings of history (1962, pp.424–55). One is the positivism of the past, which marches under the banner of the words of the famous German historian Ranke, who raised the study of history to a proper science, wie es eigentlich gewesen (the past as it actually was). The other, far more difficult to understand, and the sense of history that Heidegger will argue for, is the past as the possibility of the future. He asks what makes something preserved in a museum historical. We are not just speaking of statues and artefacts, but all the kinds of things the historian works with: letters, diaries, memoirs, eye witness accounts, government archives, treaties, and so on. For the positivist, these are the facts of history, and what makes history more than fables and myths. Heidegger does not dispute the reality of these documents nor their importance to the scientific study of history, but he asks a more difficult question: what is the ‘pastness’ of the past? Why, when I hold them in my hand, do I say they belong to the past. What is the status of these past artefacts as past, even though they belong to the present, since I holding these documents in my hands now?

What is at stake here is what we mean by truth, for it is the authenticity of these past documents (that they really belong to the past) that legitimate history and make it different from myth or storytelling. The historian isn’t interested merely in the fact that the battle of Waterloo happened on the 18th of June 1818, but that such an event can be verified by real witness accounts that have been written down and stored in archive. Just as clock time is derivate of lived time, since if human beings did not live in time, then we wouldn’t have clocks, so Heidegger thinks there is a fuller experience of history on which this narrower conception, however important and interesting it is, must rest. Why would we be interested in preserving this past, and why are some pasts more significant than others, since there are pasts that are absolutely lost, and some pasts that now that interest us (the pasts or women and the marginal, for example) that did not interest us before?

Heidegger answer is that the past matters to us because of our present. We can only interpret the past from the vantage point of the present, but this means we see the past in terms of our future. The truth of history is not the collection of supposedly true facts about the past, but how life can be breathed into them so that these lost documents might be retrieved and their burning embers illuminate our world in a new light. We study history because it reveals the present, but in so doing it shines a light forward into our future.

When we come to read Galileo, then, we are not interested in it as a dead object that has nothing to say about our present or our future, but precisely the opposite. The world we live in now is the world picture of Galileo, and the dangers of the future precisely spring out of this future. What is at the heart of Galileo’s projection of nature is mathematics. ‘The book of nature,’ he famously said, is written in the language of mathematics’.[1] Nature was not understood, as it was by the Ancient Greeks, and in the Medieval period, inspired as it was by the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, as made up of qualities, but as a quantity. What we see, colours, shapes, sizes and sounds, is not what is.

The ancient Greek word for nature is φύσις.[2] Rather than suggesting a mathematical homogenous reality, φύσις is related to the verb φύω, which means to ‘grow, produce or engender’. In latter medical texts of that period, φύσις began to mean not just the process of something (growing, producing, engendering, and so on), but the nature of something, what it is be that thing (Hadot 2004, pp.39–52). It is this notion of φύσις that we find in the works of Plato and Aristotle and which are passed down to our European heritage through the Islamic scholars by the 12th century. It is this intellectual world that is being rejected by Galileo’s hypothesis. Here nature becomes something very different, and its transformation is something that we still live with today.

It is in the next lecture that we shall investigate this transformation metaphysically and not just scientifically (for it is really Descartes who systematises Galileo’s approach and he understands more fully that it requires a whole different way of looking at nature). At this point we only want to describe generally how such a conception of nature is very different from before. It is no longer seen as a living being, but as a machine. It is the machine model of nature that opens it up to mathematisation. It is not that Galileo first sees nature mathematically and then subsequently understands it as a physical quantity, it is because he see nature as machine, whose parts can be explained purely physically, that it is open to the descriptive power of mathematics. It is this physical mathematical model that is still the basis of our modern physics, and affects the way that all view nature and ourselves. The aim of the new science of nature is to uncover those hidden mechanisms behind appearances using the new instruments (like Galileo’s telescope) and technologies, and constructing experiments through which they might be described mathematically.

What is at the heart of the new mechanical, physical, and mathematical model of nature is the belief that reality is homogenous. It is homogeneity of physical reality that is the real revolution of Galileo’s world view. For previously to Galileo, both in Ancient Greek thought, and in the monotheistic faiths, nature was heterogeneous and not homogeneous. Thus, the universe was divided into two distinct spheres, the physical and intelligible in Plato, which was then repeated in Aristotle’s double world view in the difference between the sublunary world and the heavenly spheres. The theistic division of the world into the earthly and heavenly was easily overlaid on top of these philosophical distinctions, such that in the long Scholastic period the one reinforced the other.

From the perspective of the Church, then, especially since there was no empirical proof for Galileo’s Copernicanism, since it was only a hypothesis, the judgement against Galileo was clearly justified. For it overthrew an image of nature that had existed for millennia. What this homogeneity of nature implied (as Spinoza knew only too well), was not that God did not exist, but that there was no unique place for man in the universe. As Freud remarked, the Copernican hypothesis was a blow to man’s pride, not God’s, since God was required to set such a nature in motion, but man certainly wasn’t (1973, pp.284–5). The universe is made of an infinite homogeneous matter, in which there are infinite stars and infinite planets, some no doubt inhabited by beings who equally mistakenly thought they were at the centre of the universe, but who quite obviously were not, just as man isn’t. That later on God dropped out of the model (‘we no longer need this hypothesis,’ as Laplace famously remarked), should not obscure the fact that it was the disappearance of man that led to the disappearance of God, and not the other way around.

You have to read The Dialogue of the Two Chief World Systems with a healthy scepticism (which of course is always the way you should read) (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, pp.190–271). Galileo presents the Copernican system as though it were merely an mathematical hypothesis (which is how Copernicus himself understood it), whereas he believed he already had empirical proof that such a motion was real (he even argued erroneously that it was an explanation of the tides on the earth). What you have to understand is what the motion of the earth implied, however much it went against common sense, and why his opponents, who he represents as slaves to their learning and their books, rather than earnest observational study of nature (though it was his theories rather than his observations that were the source for his own hypothesis), were so adamantly against his views. Because to see the earth as in motion meant that there no difference between the earth and the other planets, and thus there was nothing at all distinctive about it.

As he writes at the very beginning of the second day, ‘Independent Mindedness and Aristotle’s Authority’, the traditional view was that the heavenly spheres were ‘ingenerable, indestructible, unchangeable and inert’, whereas the earth was the opposite of this, ‘elemental, generable, degradable, and changeable (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.193). Galileo’s argument was that there was no difference between the earth and rest of the universe because they were made of one and the same substance, and that the earth is the same as the planet Jupiter, which is clearly moving. It is important to note that Galileo does not get Simplicus (who represents all those who reject the heliocentric view) as not disagreeing with this hypothesis by putting forward a different one, but saying that it disagrees with the authority of Aristotle. Galileo is thereby opposing two different practices of science. One in which observation and theory is fundamental (though he probably overplays the observation, since he already entertained the hypothesis and constructed the experiments to prove them), and the other, traditional and hidebound by the interpretation of texts. The former, Galileo asserts, would have been more attractive to Aristotle than the latter, even though they claim to speak in his name, since he too was a scientist, and if he had looked through Galileo’s telescope would have agreed with him and not his opponents.

If we are going to reject Aristotle, he continues, we do not need another author. The only authority we need is our own senses. Our discussion as proper philosophers should be about the ‘sensible world and not a world on paper’ (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.201). As we shall see next week, however, it is precisely this world that we cannot see.


[1] He did not actually say this. The quotation is a gloss of a passage in The Assayer. ‘Philosophy is written in this all-encompassing book that is constantly open before our eyes, that is the universe; but it cannot be understood unless one first learns to understand the language and knows the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures; without these it is humanly impossible to understand a word of it, and one wanders around pointlessly in a dark labyrinth’ (Galilei & Finocchiaro 2008, p.183).

[2] For the Liddell and Scott entry for φύσις, see http://tinyurl.com/3a4fsaf. And for φύω, see http://goo.gl/oeZ43f.


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.


Spinoza’s Ethics – Lecture 1

October 4, 2013

Ancient philosophy sought to understand the power of emotions through the division of the mind against itself, like Plato’s famous image of the chariot in the Phaedrus, where the irrational part of the mind fights against the rational part. Spinoza, on the contrary, like Descartes, wants to understand emotions through the relation of the body to the mind. The human mind for Spinoza is only the idea of the body. We only have a limited understanding of what the body can do, and how it interacts with other bodies. Ethics, for Spinoza, is knowledge of our bodies. To truly understand ourselves is therefore to understand our bodies. As Spinoza writes at the end of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, ‘I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies.’ (EIII preface)

When we normally think about ethics, we assume there is some kind moral system that would prescribe our actions in advance. This moral system would be based on, and defend, some kind of moral ideal that separates human beings from the rest of nature. Only human beings are capable of moral action, because only human beings can have moral ideas such as responsibility, freedom and duty. To be moral is not to follow one’s nature, but quite the opposite; it is to go against nature. For Spinoza, on the contrary, ethics is only possible by understanding our own nature. There is no fact/value distinction for Spinoza. What is good is what follows our nature, and nature is to be understood in terms of our desires or appetites (thus it is perfectly possible to think that animals are capable of ethics in this sense).[1] We do not desire something, as Spinoza writes in the scholium to proposition 9 in part 3, because we say it is good, rather we say something is good because we desire it:

We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, and desire it. (EIIIP9Sc)

Such a statement is precisely the opposite to any kind of idealistic morality that believes in the existence of moral ideas in advance that determine how we ought to act. There is no ‘ought’ for Spinoza if we imagine this to be the contrary to our desires, since what we are is our desires and nothing more. We have to see ourselves as part of nature and not, as Spinoza writes at the start of the preface to the third part of the Ethics, a ‘dominion within a dominion’ (imperium in imperio) (EIIIpref). This is just the case with morality as it is with any other sphere of human activity.

It is in Deleuze lectures on Spinoza that we might find the best explanation of the full scope of Spinoza’s ethics (Deleuze 1978). Why does Spinoza call his ontology an ethics? This is very peculiar, since we normally think of ethics and ontology being very different things. First of all we have to ask ourselves what is Spinoza’s ontology. It is the unique infinite substance which is being. This means that individual beings, singular things, including ourselves, are only modes of this one infinite substance. What does mode mean in Spinoza? Deleuze replies that we should understand the word ‘mode’ as meaning ‘a way of being’ or a state, in the way that we say that green is a state of grass (as opposed to brown). So a tree is a way of being of substance, just as we are ‘a way of being’ of substance. He writes: ‘Et un mode c’est quoi? C’est une manière d’être. Les étants ou les existants ne sont pas des êtres, il n’y a comme être que la substance absolument infinie’ [And a mode is what? It is a way of being. Beings or existents are not being; there is only being as an infinite absolute substance] (Deleuze 1978). He adds that if we are to think of ethics in a Spinozist sense then we have to sharply distinguish it from morality. Ethics has to do with our ‘way of being’ as a mode of infinite substance. As a ‘way of being’, it is better to understand ethics in the same way that we understand ethnology; that is, the study of human behaviour, in the same way that we study the behaviour of other animals for example.

How is this different from a morality? Morality, Deleuze answers, has to do with knotting of two key concepts, essence and value. Morality indicates what our essence is through values. This has nothing to do with ontology, since values are meant to point beyond being (think of the idea of the Good in Plato, which is ‘beyond being’). They indicate what being should be rather than what it is. The aim of every morality, he continues to explain, is the realisation of one’s essence. This means that one’s essence, is for the most part, not realised; something is always lacking or absent. Thus Aristotle, in book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, will define our essence to be eudaimonia and the object of ethics is to reach this essence. The reason that we do not realise our essence is that we don’t act in a rational way, since we lack knowledge of what it means to go beyond our being in order to reach its moral realisation. This moral end, which allows us to reach our essence, what it means to be a human being, is supplied by our values. Thus we see how in morality essence and values are ultimately tied together.

When we come to Spinoza’s ethics, Deleuze says, we have to stop thinking in terms of essence and value. An essence is not a general definition of something, like the definition of what it means to be a human being; rather essence always means a singular thing. As Deleuze says, there is an essence of this or that, but not of human beings in general. Another way of thinking of this change in the meaning of the word ‘essence’ is to say that what really interests Spinoza is existence not essence understood as a general term. For what is general is only the unique infinite substance, everything else is a mode, which is a determinate mode of infinite substance. Thus what truly differentiates one thing from another is existence not essence, since there is only one essence, strictly speaking, which is the infinite substance itself. An ethics, then, Deleuze argues, as opposed to a morality, is interested not in general abstractions, but the existence of singular things. But why is this different from morality? Deleuze gives a concrete example.

With morality the following operation always ensues: you do something, you say something and you judge yourself. Morality has always to do with judgement and it is a double system of judgement: you judge yourself and you are judged by someone else. Those who have a taste for morality always have a taste for judging themselves and others. To judge, Deleuze insists, is always to have a relation of superiority to being and it is value that expresses this superiority. But in ethics something quite different happens. In ethics there is no judgement at all, however strange that might appear to be. Someone says or does something. You do not refer this to a value which is superior to it; rather you say ‘how is this possible?’; that is to say, you only refer the statement or activity as a way of being in the same way that one might refer the activity of a lion hunting a gazelle – you don’t judge this being bad or good in relation to a value that is superior to it. The question of ethics, then for Spinoza, is not is this good or bad, but ‘what am I capable of?’ Which really means, ‘what is my body capable of?’ ‘Qu’est-ce que tu dois en vertu de ton essence, c’est qu’est-ce que tu peux, toi, en vertu de ta puissance’ [what you have in virtue of your essence, is what you are capable of, you yourself, in virtue of your power] (Deleuze 1978).

The most important aspect of the existence of any singular thing is the desire to preserve its existence, which Spinoza calls conatus and defines as follows in IIIP6: ‘Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve in its being.’ This is not just a definition of human existence, but all existence as such, whether we are talking about a stone, a plant or even a human being. To the extent that nothing prevents it from existing, everything that does exist will strive to preserve itself in its existence. Thus, to use Curley’s example, if doing X preserves its existence, then it will desire to do X unless a more powerful external cause prevents it from doing so (Curley 1988, p.108).

Spinoza’s argument for believing that this is case follows from his definition of essence. We tend to understand the meaning of essence, as we explained via Deleuze above, from Aristotle as the general definition of a thing which defines its nature in advance, but this is not how Spinoza understands ‘essence’. For him essence does not just define what something is, rather a good definition ought to be able to tell us how a thing is produced. Thus, if I want to properly define a circle what I have to be able to do is not just say what a circle is, but how a circle might be constructed. So again to use Curley’s example, the proper definition of a circle would be ‘a figure produced by the rotation of a line around a point’ (Curley 1988, p.111). The essence of something tells me how it and why it exists, and also why it continues to exist. It is, so to speak, its power of existence. We can see why, therefore, conatus, the striving to continue to exist, would be the same as the essence of something and any activity that went against it could not be properly speaking an activity at all, but caused by some external cause, and therefore passive.

How do we apply this conatus doctrine to ethics? The answer is that everything which helps me to preserve my existence I take to be good and everything that goes against my existence I take to be bad. What is good is what is useful, relative to my existence, and what is bad, is what dangerous, relatively speaking, to my continued existence. This striving is not only a striving for self-preservation, but also, as we shall see in the next lecture, an increase in the power of action, since in relation to the external causes that would extinguish my existence, all I have is my power to act against them.

What then is an affect? An affect is not a feeling for Spinoza, but a representation. My mind represents my body and states of that body. My mind is nothing more than this, nor is my thoughts anything more than this representation. Of course states of my mind can be caused by things outside of my body, but my body can only represent these external things through the states of my body itself. Since effects, for Spinoza, represent causes, in representing these effects, I represent the external things in some way through the power of my body to be affected by them.

As we saw above, the essence of something is its power to act. But just as much as a body has a power to act (I can swim ten lengths of a pool) so does a mind. The mind’s power to act is contained by what it is capable of representing. But remember what the mind contains for Spinoza is the representation of the body and states of the body, so that the more that the body is capable of the more it can think. Thus, for Spinoza, the reason why the human mind has more power to act than the cabbage’s mind (and Spinoza argued that all bodies have a mind to some extent) is that the human body is capable of more. So an affect is the representation of the body whose power to act has either increased or decreased as he defines it in the third definition of part three:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections. (EIIID3)

Every individual being strives to exist. Such a striving is a desire. I desire that which preserves my being. To preserve my being I must increase my power to act, since power is my essence. Every time I increase my power to act, I experience joy, and conversely, every that my power to act is decreased then I experience sadness. So what we mean by emotion is the power of the mind to be affected from within or without. All the emotions or affects that we speak of are merely modifications of these three fundamental affects. To understand or affects, then, is to bring them back to joy and sadness and how my existence is increased or decreased in relation to them. The aim of the Ethics is to show how using our reason we should be able to promote the former over the latter.

What is decisive, however, in Spinoza’s understanding of affects, is that they are representational. They are representation of the body and states of the body in the mind. If the origin of the transition for joy to sadness is external to my mind, then it is a passive affect. If it is internal to the mind then it is an active affect. The aim of life, therefore, is to replace passive affects with active ones, which means to understand the true origin of our affects, which is to understand that the idea in my mind is also an idea in God’s or my mind is nothing else than an idea in the mind of God.

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].


[1] This is not to say that animals have rights for Spinoza. Not even human beings have these, at least not in the normal way that we think of them. A right is a power for Spinoza and so we have a ‘right’ over something to the extent that we have power over them.


Substance in Spinoza – Lecture 5

November 4, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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


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

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