Dr W Large


What is the Meaning of Substance in Spinoza?

Last week we looked at some of historical background to Spinoza’s Ethics.[1] We understood that it is impossible to come to grips with his work unless we understood the philosophical meaning of the word ‘substance’. Philosophers have the irritating habit, which perhaps belongs to philosophy essentially, of re-creating the meaning of words for their own use, which explains the uselessness of most dictionaries for understanding what they mean. The word ‘substance’ is a prime example of this, for its does not mean what something is made from, when, for example, we say in ordinary usage, ‘what is the substance of this thing’. We usually mean by this question what is the material of the thing, whether it has been created artificially or naturally. This is not what Spinoza means by the word ‘substance’ which has it origin in Aristotle and Descartes, though it will also come to have, as we shall see this week, a very different meaning as well. In fact, the Greek had a very different word to explain the material basis of things, which is ‘matter’, which would be closer to  the translation of the Greek word hyle. The word for ‘substance’ is quite a different word, ousia, which means being. What and why something is, and not ‘what something is made from’, which might belong to the explanation of something, but is not its ultimate explanation.

      We also saw that there were two essential elements to the definition of substance, which Spinoza retains, but also changes their meaning: independence and identity. A substance is something that is not dependent on something else (this is the basis explanation of the difference between substance and attributes, since cold is dependent on the thing that is cold, but the thing is not dependent on cold, since it can also warm up. This also explains the second element of the definition of substance, identity, since substance is what remains the same through change: the thing goes from being cold to be hot, but nonetheless it still remains the same.

      The most important precursor to Spinoza is Descartes and it is clear that he is heavily indebted both for the way he thinks (sometimes called ‘rationalism’, and how he thinks, the vocabulary he uses to express his thoughts: substance, attributes and modes (though Descartes himself borrowed this language from late Scholasticism). The proximity between the two, however, should not allow us to overlook their fundamental difference, for they think about substance in a very different way. We also alluded to that in the last lecture, when we said that for Spinoza that Descartes retains the distinction between substance and attribute, so that the difference between attributes (thought and extension) becomes a substantial difference. Over the next two weeks we will have to explain this in more detail.

      Deleuze writes, which I think is very useful, that there are two Ethics.[2] One is the Ethics of the definition, axiom, propositions and demonstrations (a very forbidding and difficult work, all cold and hard) and the other the Ethics of the scholia, notes and appendices, where, so to speak Spinoza lets his hair down, and gives a bit more to the read by the way of examples, images and his own motivation for the writing the Ethics. This is why it can be useful to start there, rather than straight away with the definitions and axioms, and this is no truer than with the first part. The appendix tells us why it is important to know that there is only one substance, and this both theological and political reasons (though these two are the same for Spinoza, as the title of his other work A Theologico-Political Treatise tells us, since power over others is always mediated by superstition and the priest, of all religions, and the tyrant are one and the same).

Spinoza tells us at the beginning of the appendix of Part 1 of the Ethics that what he demonstrated is the nature of God. In fact the title of part 1 is ‘Of God’. We need, however, to be very careful here, since Spinoza has only demonstrated the nature of God by getting rid of the theological God (and this explains why he was thought of as being an atheist, even though he amongst all other philosophers talks about God more than any other). What is this theological God? It is God thought of as a final end:

All the prejudices I here undertake to suppose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end, for they say that God has made all things for man, and man that he might worship God. (Appendix, Part 1).

Why is it so important to distinguish Spinoza’s God from the God that people normally believe in? Because they wrongly ascribe to nature a teleology, finality or purpose. We do this because we project onto nature our own way of acting and existing. It is we who act from a desire, not nature. We can see that the fundamental aim of Spinoza’s metaphysics is to convince us that there is no anthropocentric centre of nature. We look at nature of the universe as though we were at the centre, and that it existed for us. For this reason, we also create a God who is outside of this nature, a transcendent God, to confirm our own importance. God creates nature for our purpose, and he creates us, as Spinoza writes, so that we might worship him.

Rather than seeing ourselves as apart from nature, and nature created for our purposes, we should see that we are part of nature. Everyone, Spinoza, argues, is born ignorant and seeks their own advantage in the world. This is why we think that we are free, since we only see the world in terms of our own desires, and not ourselves from its perspective. If we understood nature properly we would understand the real causes of our desires, which are not the result of freedom but inadequate ideas. Ignorant people interpret nature as though it just existed to fulfil whatever they want. So they have, Spinoza writes ‘eyes for seeing, teeth for chewing, plants and animals for food, the sun for light, the sea for supporting fish.’ And because they know that they are not the cause for these wonderful things that are so happily at one with their own purpose, they imagine there is a beneficent God who has created all this for their own delight and happiness.

This only leads, Spinoza argues, to the most absurd notion of nature. For they cannot explain why all the terrible things that happen in nature, like plagues, earthquakes and volcanoes, could possible fit with the ends of human happiness and welfare. Why interpret the whole of nature from the viewpoint of human beings, and then create a God outside of this nature, which then confirms the extra-special place of the human species within the cosmos? Which comes first, man’s overweening pride in his own uniqueness or the idea of God who create him? Is not the answer that it is our own self-centeredness which has created this perverse idea of God, and not this God who has created us?

Rather than accepting this mysterious God whose final purpose is mystery we should look for a different knowledge of things (which Spinoza calls ‘mathematical’) which, rather than looking for unknown final causes, instead looks for the essence of properties of things. This is exactly what Spinoza is attempting to do in the first part of the Ethics. Final causes are not the explanation of reality but ‘human fictions’. All that is follows from the necessity of what is. Arguments from final causes turn the whole of reality upside down. They confuse causes with effects, and make what is last, first.

What is at the heart of this superstition is anthropomorphism, which is the belief that the whole of nature is merely created for the sake of human beings and their own advantages. They imagine that the order of things has been created so that we can imagine them, and that what we imagine is exactly the same as the order of things. On the contrary, Spinoza argues, reality is greater (and infinitely so) than anything we can imagine. The biggest error is that we take human imagination as the measure of reality. Our imagination is determined by our bodies, and what our bodies can perceive is limited by their finite and determinate nature – if we had different shaped eyes would we not see nature in a completely different way? The nature of things, the nature of nature, is determined by its essence, and not how its appears according to our imagination. We are part of the reality we experience. There is no separation between us and nature.

As Lloyd describes, therefore, we should see the first part of the Ethics as disproving the existence of a personal God, who would be no different from us, except more powerful, for the sake of the metaphysical God of ‘God or Nature’.[3] It sees God not as a being outside of nature, producing or creating it, in the way that a human being would produce an artefact, but as one with nature (or nature and God being one and the same thing). Thus, its attack on the idea of a personal God is in fact nothing less than an attack on anthropomorphism, since the personal God is only a magnified representation of our humanity, which sets apart from the rest of nature.

But why are God and nature one and the same? This goes back to Spinoza’s argument that there can only be one substance and this substance must be God. Again the method here is mathematical in Spinoza’s definition of the term, that it follows from the essence of definition of substance. It follows from the very meaning of the word ‘substance’, and the ultimate reality that it denotes, that there can only be one substance and not any other. Again, Spinoza’s real opponent here is Descartes who believed that there must be a least two kinds of substance, extension and thought, and that the latter, was made up of individual minds.

Why did Descartes think that there must be at least two kind of substance, and not one as Spinoza thought? Curley might be our guide here in the opening of his book Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics.[4] One reason that Descartes is such a good place to begin to understand Descartes is that we all feel very comfortable with him. His philosophy appears to be common sense, though it might not be clear what came first, common sense or Descartes. What does metaphysics mean for both of them? It means to be able to offer a description of the ‘whole of the universe’. For Descartes, as we have said, the universe is made up of two kinds of substance, material and the mental. All substances are finite apart from God, who is infinite, and upon which all other substances, therefore, depend for their existence. What does Descartes mean by substance? He means independent existence in terms of logic. A substance is that which can be conceived in itself without being dependent on anything else. This seems to be the same as Spinoza’s definition of substance (D3) at the beginning of the Ethics:

By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself, that is, that who concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed.

Other things that we can conceive are not so independent. Thus it is impossible, following Curley’s explanation, or conceiving a shape or colour independent of a body, and it is impossible to conceive of a thought without a mind thinking that thought. These dependent things Descartes calls modes, and again Spinoza’s definition does not seem to be any different in D5:

By mode I understand the affections of a substance, or that which is in another through which it is also conceived.

Descartes also makes a distinction between essential and inessential properties of things, which he calls their ‘principle attributes’, and again this seems to follow our normal experience of the world. I can distinguish between the colour of something, and its extension. The colour might change, but a thing could not be a thing with extension. Thus, extension is primary attribute of material things. Something they must all have to be things at all. And one can say the same thing about thought. There might be many different kinds of thought, but without thinking there can be no thoughts at all, so that thought in itself describes one way something can be. Now for Descartes it is not possible to conceive of a material thing through thinking, nor a thought through extension (ask yourself what colour or shape a thought is – this makes no sense except as a metaphor). Again this seems to make a lot of sense to us. The word is made of material things, and ideas, which are described by the principle attributes, extension and thought. But it is precisely here that Spinoza would disagree with Descartes, for he would ask whether we can really separate attributes and substance. In other words, there is still a surreptitious transcendence in Descartes, and it is between attributes and substances. Rather than saying that there are two kinds of substance, which are expressed by two different attributes, Spinoza argues that there is only the one substance which expresses itself through two attributes. There is no substance separate from the attribute, which is what Descartes would have to assert if he is going to have his two substances, rather the attributes are immanent to substance. They express, so to speak, its way being. Another way of thinking this, is that for Spinoza there is no real difference between substance and attribute, since it would be absurd to say that substance would have certain attributes outside of the attributes that express it. What would extended substance be without outside of the attribute of extension? What would a thought be outside of the attribute thought? Aren’t substance and attribute one and the same.This is what seems to be implied again by the definition of attributes in the Ethics in P10, which is the same as the definition of substance: ‘Each attribute of a substance must be conceived through itself.’ It is this notion of being conceived through itself which is important, which is the very same as the definition of substance.

Descartes’ error perhaps has the same origin as the theology which Spinoza derides in the appendix. Namely its cause is the projection of our way of seeing onto the universe or nature as a whole. Thought and extension are just the way that we perceive substance. In fact substance must have infinite attributes as Spinoza demonstrates in P11. Why is there only one substance with infinite attributes? This is very difficult question, and we certainly far from the common sense of Descartes, but it comes down to the definition of God (D6) which Spinoza sets out in the following way:

By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.

Now Curley says that Descartes would not be able to disagree with this definition of God, since he too says that God is to be understood as the idea of infinity. But how do we get from this idea of infinity to necessity of their being only one substance with infinite attributes, rather than two substances expressed through two separate kinds of attributes, the material and the mental? This is question that we will need to start next week’s lecture with.

[1] By ‘historical’, I mean the history of philosophy, and not the social and historical background of Spinoza’s philosophy. For some indication of the effect of ‘real’ history on Spinoza, one can read Antonio Negri, The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, translated by M. Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).

[2] L’Ethique est un livre simultané écrit deux fois : une fois dans le flot continu des définitions, propositions, démonstrations et corollaires, qui développent les grands thèmes spéculatifs avec toutes les rigueurs de la tête ; une autre fois dans la chaîne brisée des scolies, ligne volcanique, discontinue, deuxième version sous la première, qui exprime toutes les colères du cœur et posent les thèses pratiques de dénonciation et de libération. [Ethics is a book simultaneously written twice: once, in the continuous flow of definitions, propositions, demonstrations and corollaries, which develop the grand speculative themes with all the rigour of the mind; and once again in the broken chain of the scholia, volcanic line, discontinuous, a second version beneath the first, which expresses all the anger of the heart, and poses all the practical theses of denunciation and liberation]. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza, Philosophie pratique (Paris: Minuit, 1981) 42-3.

[3] Genevieve Lloyd, Spinoza and his Ethics (Routledge: London, 1996) 13.

[4] Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method (PUP, Princeton, 1988) 3-23.