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Amihud Gilead

Substance, Attributes, and Spinoza’s Monistic Pluralism

The European Legacy, 3, no. 6 (1998)

A Note on the Context of the Monistic-Pluralist Problem

This article is devoted to one of the crucial problems, if not the most crucial, in Spinoza’s philosophy. Nevertheless, we should not ignore the obvious fact that the pluralist-monistic problem can be found at the heart of the vital philosophical debates from the Post-Eleatics and Plato to the present. Parmenides, Zeno, Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, Davidson, and Putnam, each emphatically and extensively treats it in his own way. It has a special manifestation in the psychophysical (mind-body) question, which many consider an unsolved, aporetic problem, as well as in that of the relationship among mind, knowledge, and objective reality. Hence, the problem has much to do with the idealistic-realist debate, which is still very much alive. Nowadays, Davidson and Putnam, to name but two, play an intriguing part in these philosophical debates. Some commentators on Spinoza believe that Davidson takes a Spinozistic monistic stance. As we shall soon see, Davidson himself recently characterized his stance as such, but this is not the case at all if my interpretation in this paper is sound. Spinoza adopts a unique position on these problems, and his systematic, coherent answer to the monistic-pluralist question is unique, at least in the European legacy, if not in any philosophical tradition, Western or Eastern. Spinoza should not be considered an idealist, materialist, physicalist, or dual-aspect theorist. None of the ready-made labels can serve us adequately in characterizing his unique stance. Spinoza is only Spinozist.

It has always been a real temptation to adopt a reductionist posture on the psychophysical question as well as on that of mind, knowledge, and objective reality. However, reductionism cannot be an adequate solution, for it renders reality as well as our experience and knowledge of it unbearably poor, shallow, and narrow or restricted. On the other hand, nonreductionist views, especially dualism, have real difficulty in tackling these questions. At least until now, dualist approaches have rendered them aporetic problems. Dualism does not provide adequate answers; it is problematic in itself and strengthens the problematic, aporetic nature of the aforementioned problems.

Spinoza, rejecting almost any possible reductionism in most of the problems he deals with, is therefore not idealist or materialist. If you accept my interpretation of Spinoza’s philosophy, you will find that he would reject physicalism of any sort, and most, if not all, of today’s philosophical views, including Davidson’s. Spinoza thus contributes a unique view of some of the most crucial problems in philosophy in general, and in the European legacy in particular, problems that exercise us enormously nowadays. His stance lives with us as a vital, most real possibility, which no serious thinker may ignore. [1]

Spinoza’s Problem and Its Current Interpretations

The unity of Spinoza’s substance appears problematic as soon as we assume the objective interpretation of the attributes, according to which they are really distinct and not a subjective invention of an intellect. An objective interpretation of a certain kind misled Donagan, among others, to conclude that the real distinction of attributes discloses a Spinozistic “dualism.” 1 This conclusion, which renders Spinoza a sort of a Cartesian dualist, seems to me untenable. Curley, in a rival but similarly unpersuasive view, argues that “Spinoza is best regarded as a kind of materialist, more metaphysically sophisticated Hobbes, anxious to incorporate into his philosophy Cartesian insights. 2 Bennett’s attempt to fill the gap in “Spinoza’s substance monism,” which is supposed to be consistent with “property dualism,” 3 does not seem to clear up the interpretive conundrum; rather the contrary. It also seems that we may gain neither an adequate clarification nor a satisfactory solution of Spinoza’s monism/dualism dilemma from Bennett’s and Curley’s ongoing debate over related subjects. 4 They both commit some grave inconsistencies regarding him. If eventually, as Bennett claims, extension and thought “are not really fundamental properties, although they must be perceived as such by any intellect, 5 what is the difference between the true knowledge of an intellect and the false cognition of imagination And if “there is something in the nature of an illusion or error ... in taking an attribute to be a basic property,” 6 then in the end one is again caught, like Wolfson and others, in the subjective trap, in which the differentiations made by an intellect are not those of reality as it is truly, qua in se est.

Such an interpretation manifestly contradicts Spinoza’s way of thinking, for instance at 1p30d. 7

A true idea must agree with its object (by a6); i.e. (as it is known through itself), what is contained objectively in the intellect must necessarily be in nature.....[A]n actual intellect, whether finite or infinite, must comprehend God’s attributes and God’s affections and nothing more.

Bearing in mind that “attribute” is “what the intellect perceives concerning a substance” (1p10d), Spinoza clearly combines “necessity,” “eternity,” and “reality” with “attribute” (1p10s). He has no doubt that an attribute’s (and substance’s) intelligibility is real and that it has nothing illusory in it. Moreover, he believes that the better of his two demonstrations for the plurality of the attributes of a substance is as follows: “the more attributes I attribute to a being, the more I am compelled to attribute existence to it; that is, the more I conceive it as true. It would be quite the contrary if I had feigned a Chimera, or something like that” (Letter 9, G IV, p. 45; Curley’s translation, p. 195). Perceiving a thing by an intellect means perceiving it adequately and truly, namely “as it is in itself” (qua in se est, Letter 12, G IV, p. 56; Curley’s translation, p. 203). The intelligibility of the attributes guarantees that they are not subjective but real, objective, and distinct. An intellect, whether finite or infinite, neither invents nor feigns something but rather conceives and displays the real distinctions or differentiations qua in se sunt, as they are in reality, which consists in them.

If Spinoza is not a materialist, or a dualist, or a reductionist of various sorts (e.g., Davidson’s ontological reductionism) 8 and if indeed the subjective interpretation does not do justice to the text, one should look for a different interpretation from, mutatis [2] mutandis, Donagan’s, Bennett’s, Curley’s, and Davidson’s. One must tackle in a different way the mind-body problem, 9 and that of the infinite real attributes of the one and the same substance in Spinoza’s philosophy.

Spinoza’s Unique Monism:
A Posteriori Necessity and A Priori Principles

In my view, Spinoza forms a unique type of monism that is neither reductive nor Eleatic, namely a monistic pluralism. 10 This monistic pluralism deals with the one coherent system of reality as infinitely differentiated in total differentiations, which are the attributes, and these totalities are infinitely differentiated in finite differentiations, namely, the finite modes.

It is neither coincidental nor a matter of some carelessness that both in Letter 9 and at 2p7s Spinoza refers to effects or modes while attempting to demonstrate the unity of attributes in the single substance. Spinoza points out this way of viewing our problem: not only from the a priori, general point of view concerning natura naturans, but also and conjunctively from the particular a posteriori point of view concerning natura naturata, namely effects and modes. Indeed, he prefers the a priori procedure of argumentation to the a posteriori one (1p11d3s); however, this does not diminish the legitimacy of the latter. Actually, at 2p10c,s (and also at 1p11d3s) Spinoza warns us against the wrong order of knowledge, which begins with “the objects of the senses” (2p10c,s), or with “things that follow from external causes” (1p11d3s), and which assumes them to be substances. However, his own a posteriori procedure (or point of view) is conducted by a priori principles according to which God is the only substance, “prior both in knowledge and in nature” (2p10c,s), and particular things are finite modes.

Yet, there seems to be a good reason to diminish the a posteriori point of view, since one may think that it involves contingency, contrary to the general, a priori one that is absolutely necessary. However, Spinoza also ascribes necessity of another kind to effects and finite modes, even though their essences do not involve existence: he explicitly says that

the modes of the divine nature have also followed from it necessarily, not contingently.... [A]ll things have been determined from the necessity of the divine nature, not only to exist, but to exist in a certain way, and to produce effects in a certain way. There is nothing contingent (1p29d).

Relying upon 1p29, Spinoza points out that “the mind understands all things to be necessary (by 1p29)” (5p6d), and actually deals with the necessity of “singular things” (5p6s). As for “all particular things are contingent” (2p31c; cf. 1p29), they are contingent for us because we have “no adequate knowledge of their duration (by p31),” and such inadequacy has to do with our ignorance only, and not with the real existence, ut in se est, of the particular things themselves. Indeed, according to 2p45s, their existence is not “duration, i.e., existence insofar as it is conceived abstractly. ... I am speaking of the very nature of existence, which is attributed to singular things ... the force by which each one perseveres in existing follows from the eternal necessity of God’s nature.” In a similar manner, one can interpret 2a1 (and 2p10d), according to which a particular person does not necessarily exist. However, according to 2p30d (which relies on 2a1), such a contingency is a product of [3] our inadequate knowledge concerning the dependence of the duration of our body on the common order of nature. Yet, obviously, the necessity of a finite thing is different from that of the infinite one, whose essence involves existence. Only the latter can be known a priori.

Indeed, Spinoza employs an a posteriori procedure of knowledge—arguing from the finite modes to God’s attribute, from the effects to the causa sui—when stating that “the more we understand singular things, the more we understand God” (5p24), which is proved thus: “this is evident from 1p25c” (5p24d). 1p25c itself deals with particular things as “modes by which God’s attributes are expressed in a certain and determinate way.” Hence, Spinoza employs, in addition to the a priori procedure and relying on it, an a posteriori procedure that instantiates the general necessity of God over finite modes, particular effects, and singular things, which in themselves are not contingent but necessary, even though their essence does not involve existence. Moreover, we must not rely only on Spinoza’s references in Ethics 5 in order to recognize the necessary contribution of the a posteriori procedure to his argumentation. Careful attention to the first part alone is sufficient: it is not coincidental that 1def2, considering res in suo genera finita, comes after the first definition, which is of the causa sui. The first draws our attention to an a priori point of view concerning the most general aspect of reality; the second to finite beings such as bodies and thoughts, which are not deduced from the comprehensive causa sui, but which are displayed from an a posteriori point of view.

Moreover, Spinoza actually involves the a posteriori aspect of his philosophy not only by the example of 1def2, but also at 1def4, in which he explicitly mentions an intellect, whether finite or infinite, which according to 1p31d is “a certain mode of thinking” that “must be referred to natura naturata, not to natura naturans”.

It is a matter of importance that Spinoza also refers to the a posteriori point of view even in regard to the causa sui: “God must be called the cause of all things in the same sense in which he is called the cause of himself [causa sui]“ (1p25s). It is the same causa sui, as it is considered, however, from the a priori point of view at 1def1, and from the a posteriori one at 1p25s and c. The a posteriori point of view concerning the body as it relates to God’s essence is emphasized by 2def1, also referring to 1p25c[!]: “By body I understand a mode that in a certain and determinate way expresses God’s essence insofar as he is considered as an extended thing (see 1p25c).” Speaking of singular thoughts and God’s essence at 2p1d, Spinoza again refers to 1p25c. Consequently, our attention is drawn to the a posteriori aspect (i.e., natura naturata) of the causa sui (by 1p25s). Indeed, it appears that singular bodies and thoughts are no less indispensable for Spinoza’s metaphysics than the causa sui; however, the latter, as a first principle, precedes the former and conducts it.

The Limitation of Deduction or Apriorism

The a priori procedure of argumentation has an obvious priority in the eyes of Spinoza (as he himself mentions at 1p11d3s) and the general, a priori principles are prior to any particular detail or fact of experience. Yet, despite its posteriority the a posteriori point of view is indispensable because no finite mode can be deduced or inferred (i.e., by an a priori manner) from any of the attributes alone:

What is finite and has a determinate existence could not have been produced by the absolute nature of an attribute of God; for whatever follows from the absolute nature of an [4] attribute of God is eternal and infinite (by p21).... It had, therefore, to follow from, or be determined to exist and produced an effect by God or an attribute of God insofar as it is modified by a modification which is finite and has a determinate existence (1p28d).

Indeed, “a modification which is finite and has a determinate existence” is known a posteriori alone, and not in any a priori manner. The existence of any particular thing cannot be deduced from the natura naturans alone, apart from specific, finite differentiations. Any intellect, finite and infinite alike, 11 requires given facts in order to deduce some particular knowledge from that of the general principles of reality, concerning the causa sui, substance, attributes, and also infinite modes. Spinoza is certainly entitled to rely on given facts in his argumentation (for instance, in 2a5, 2p13d), as long as it proceeds under the guidance of the a priori, general principles. 12

Consequently, we should not ask how Spinoza can deduce (by the a priori procedure alone) a particular finite mode from any attribute as such, since he does not intend to perform such an impossible enterprise. Instead, we may and should ask whether all finite modes can be combined together into one attribute, and, moreover, whether all the really distinct attributes constitute one coherent total reality, namely one substance.

In order to prove that such is the case, Spinoza must employ, in addition to the a priori argumentation, an a posteriori one that is conducted according to the general principles of the former.

Spinoza’s Monistic Pluralism:
The Irreducibility of Differentiations as well as Their Unity

Stating the problem in this way, we can consider Spinoza’s metaphysics as a monistic pluralism, according to which all finite modes of the same kind pertain to one of the real distinct attributes, all of which together constitute the (essence of) one substance. None of these attributes is reducible to the other, nor is it caused by it, nor does it cause it. Spinoza states this in the following way:

[I]t is evident that although two attributes may be conceived to be really distinct (i.e., one may be conceived without the aid of the other), we still cannot infer from that that they constitute two beings, or [sive, “namely”] different substances. For it is of the nature of a substance that each of its attributes is conceived through itself, since all the attributes it has have always been in it together, and one could not be produced by another, but each expresses the reality, or [namely] being of substance. So it is far from absurd to attribute many attributes to one substance. Indeed, nothing in nature is clearer than that each being must be conceived under some attribute, and the more reality, or being it has, the more it has attributes which express necessity, or eternity, and infinity. ... [A] being absolutely infinite must be defined ... as a being that consists of infinite attributes... [In] nature there exists only one substance, and ... it is absolutely infinite (1p10s).

This scholium is important for three reasons: (1) it points out the real distinction and irreducible nature of the attributes; (2) this distinction does not foil the unity of substance; (3) Spinoza’s one substance is not like “das eleatische Sein” as Hegel, in the Science of Logic, puts it. 13 On the contrary, it contains or encompasses an infinity of infinite (total) differentiations, namely attributes. Substance is a unity of infinite plurality, it is a coherent system that [5] is a monistic plurality. Its totality is real, since it contains any possible fact and also because any of its true total (infinite) conceptions is not abstract but concrete; namely, it is not a general being, like a night in which all cows are black. It is not an undifferentiated whole, but it is necessarily qualified, expressing itself in specific way. 14 Substance is not an empty substratum to which some attributes are assigned. Substance is each of “its” attributes together constituting one infinite reality. Although this reality is indivisible, all its infinite differentiations are real. Spinoza insists that the unity of substance is well kept, even though it “has” an infinity of attributes, and he also insists that “no attribute of a substance can be truly conceived from which it follows that the substance can be divided” (1p12).The modal distinction of the finite modes is real, even though it is not substantial (1p15s). Spinoza points out the necessity of all God’s finite differentiations or modes (consult 1p16, as it is interpreted by 1p25s,c and 2p45s; 1p29d, 1p33d, 1p36d, 1 appendix 83/27‑32, 2p3d, 2p4).

Spinoza’s idea about the total qualified differentiations of the whole reality is one of the most original and important contributions to monistic thought. Spinoza’s totality is entirely different from Parmenides’s undifferentiated whole, and his monistic pluralism rejects any kind of reduction that ignores the plurality and distinctness of reality’s differentiations, infinite or finite (except the reduction of the will [2p49c and s]). Consequently, Spinoza is neither a materialist nor an idealist, and, according to him, the mind is not reducible to the body or vice versa. His comprehensive reality is not abstract but concrete. It is the “richest,” “fullest” being.

This leads us back to the a posteriori argumentation (as indicated by 1def2), which confirms and exemplifies the general, a priori principles of reality. Being concrete, these principles must always be capable of particular instantiating. Consequently, the unity of the two known attributes, extension and thought, must be exemplified and instantiated by the so-called “unity of mind and body.” Even though they are irreducible, mind and body are the same particular thing, distinctly modified as two real, different finite modes of the two known attributes.

The Same Order and Connection

It is in the a posteriori argumentation that Spinoza considers nature thus: “The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things” (2p7; emphasis mine). And the demonstration also proceeds from the effect to its cause, that is, in an a posteriori manner. I shall now turn to 2p7s, emphasizing what is of greater concern:

Whatever can be perceived by an infinite intellect as constituting [the] essence of substance pertains to one substance only, and consequently ... the thinking substance and the extended substance are one and the same substance, which is now comprehended under this attribute, now under that. So also a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways...

For example, a circle existing in nature and the idea of the existing circle, which is also in God, are one and the same thing, which is explained through different attributes. Therefore, whether we conceive nature under the attribute of extension, or under the attribute of thought, or under any other attribute, we shall find one and the same order, that is [sive] one and the same connection of causes, i.e., that the same things follow one another. [6]

When I said that God is the cause of the idea, say of a circle, only insofar as he is a thinking thing, and [the cause] of the circle, only insofar as he is an extended thing, this was for no other reason than because the formal being of the idea of the circle can be perceived only through another mode of thinking, as its proximate cause, and that mode again through another, and so on, to infinity. Hence, so long as things are considered as modes of thinking, we must explain the order of the whole of nature, that is [sive] the connection of causes, through the attribute of thought alone. And insofar as they are considered as modes of extension, the order of the whole of nature must be explained through the attribute of extension alone. I understand the same concerning the other attributes.

So of things as they are in themselves [ut in se sunt], God is really the cause insofar as he consists of infinite attributes (all emphasis mine).

2p7 points out two aspects of unity or identity: (1) the unity or identity of the substance, which is really and differently conceived under each one of the attributes; (2) the unity or identity of a particular thing (i.e., a circle), conceived as different modes under each one of the attributes. 2p21s shows that a particular thing is concerned at this point in 2p7s, as follows: “there [in 2p7s] we have shown that the idea of the body and the body, i.e., ... the mind and the body, are one and the same individual, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension” (2p21s, emphasis mine). 15

Both substance and attribute have the same scope, i.e., “the order of the whole of nature,” and that order is, in other words (sive), the total causal chain which is the causa sui, the independent, unconditioned cause. Each particular thing, each individual, is a link in the total causal chain, since “nothing exists from whose nature some effect does not follow” (1p36; the demonstration of which mentions God’s essence and God as the “cause of all things”). However, the (absolutely) total causal chain is necessarily expressed or manifested as an attribute, as a certain total causal chain, as a causa sui, a total kind of existence in which the absolute chain necessarily operates and manifests itself.

Two Senses of Causa Sui

It seems to me that Letters 35 and 36 also support and do not foil my interpretation concerning causa sui. Indeed, Spinoza thinks that, on the one hand,

... [I]f we assume that something which is only unlimited [indeterminati] and perfect of its kind exists by its own sufficiency, then we must also admit the existence of a being that is absolutely unlimited and perfect; which Being I shall call God (Letter 36, G IV, p. 185/11-15). 16

On the other hand, he writes that

God is a Being that is not only in a certain respect but absolutely unlimited in essence ... I conclude, therefore, as in my former letter, that nothing besides God, but only God, subsists by His own sufficiency (Letter 36, G IV, p. 186/3‑8). 17

According to Letter 35 (p. 181/11‑13), Ens, quod suâ sufficientiâ [...] subsistit is the same as [ens] quod ejus natura necessariam involvit existentiam, and, according to Ethics 1ax1, such a being is causa sui. However, the two quotations cited above do not contradict one another. Spinoza helps us to understand this by using the Greek definite article for “the [7] Being” (τò esse, 185/31; τω esse, 184/32) as characterizing God’s perfect essence. Consequently, I interpret both Letters 35 and 36 as follows: God’s attribute is causa sui, like God himself; however, it is not the causa sui, the absolute total Being. Actually Spinoza explains to De Hudde that extensio and cognitio are not substances but God’s attributes, and as such only each one of them is suâ sufficientiâ existere, although not as substance, not absolutely, but in a certain way. Each attribute, as expressing (or constituting) God’s essence in a certain way, is a causa sui, and in a certain way its essence involves existence!

Each attribute is a total causal chain independent of any of the other attributes and has no causal-logical relation to it. Yet, each one of the total causal chains, as total, encompasses or “contains” the same reality, “the whole of nature,” in the same order in which the same particular things, as links, occupy the same “locations.” Each particular thing is expressed or manifested as a different mode of each attribute. Each particular thing, considered under the attributes of extension and thought, is both a physical being and a thinking (or mental) one. There is neither causal relation nor logical entailment between a thinking being and a physical one. In other words, “a body is not limited by a thought nor a thought by a body” (1def2). There are causal connections among thinking beings, all of which together are the coherent, one thinking nature, which is “infinite in its own kind” (following 1def6e). The same holds for all extended (physical) beings and the whole extended nature. Extended nature and thinking nature are one and the same substance.

At 2p7s (from G II, p. 90/8 on) Spinoza refers to a mode of extension (e.g., a circle) and the idea of that mode. Actually, he employs an a posteriori order of presentation: from one idea, as an effect, to another, “as its proximate cause ... and so on, to infinity” (in infinitum; 90/22); from a circle to its physical cause, and so on, to infinity. In infinitum here does not indicate an inadequate aggregate, “the common order of nature” (e.g., at 2p30d, G II, p. 115/5; 2p31d, p. 115/21‑22), but a total adequate causal chain, which is a coherent, unified system (like the in infinitum at 5p40s, p. 306/23). This system is “the order of the whole of nature, that is [sive] the connection of causes” (90/24).

“So also (sic etiam [90/8]) a mode” implies that Spinoza does not deduce what follows from the substance’s unity (as it was correctly interpreted by Bennett and Wilson); whereas what follows “therefore, whether we conceive” (90/14) is a consequence inferred from, or based on, the example of the circle explained through different attributes. It seems to me, therefore, that at this point Spinoza employs an a posteriori kind of argumentation that is, however, conducted according to a priori, general principles (for instance, that there are neither causal nor logical relations among modes of different attributes).

Adequate Causality:
Spinoza’s Principle of Individuation and Identity

Spinoza’s philosophy may satisfactorily justify the two aspects of unity in question, if we can reconstruct from it a principle of individuation and personal identity that may equally guarantee both aspects of unity or identity, i.e., that of a particular thing on one hand, and that of substance on the other. I think that, following inter alia 3def1 and 2def7, we can reconstruct such a principle. My suggestion is that Spinoza’s principle of individuation and personal identity is actually adequate causality. In a previous article, I elaborated a reconstruction of this principle, 18 and now I would like to apply it as a solution to the problem in question. Let us begin with two quotes: [8]

(a) I call that cause adequate whose effect can be clearly and distinctly perceived through [per] it. But I call it partial, namely [sive] inadequate, if its effect cannot be understood through it alone (3def1).

(b) By singular things I understand things that are finite and have a determinate existence. And if a number of individuals so concur in one action that together they are all the cause of one effect, I consider them all, to that extent, as one singular thing (2def7).

The identity and individuation of a particular thing is maintained, because this thing alone is an adequate cause of a certain effect. Namely, following 3def1, this thing is, sufficiently and necessarily, the only cause of a certain effect (or effects) that itself is another link in the total causal chain. Being such an adequate cause points out the uniqueness and indispensability of that particular thing in the whole of nature and “locates” it (not by terms of place and time) as a necessary link in the total causal chain.

The uniqueness of a particular thing is its essence, which “characterizes” it alone. According to 2p37, “what is common to all things ... and is equally in the part and in the whole, does not constitute the essence of any singular thing.” Essence, whether of a singular thing or of an infinite one, is defined as follows:

I say that to the essence of any thing belongs that which, being given, the thing is necessarily posited and which, being taken away, the thing is necessarily taken away; or that without which the thing can neither be nor be conceived, and which can neither be nor be conceived without the thing (2def2).

According to 2p10c,s, which refers to 2def2 and explains it, God does not pertain to the essence of singular things. Consequently, essence is an individuating factor, 19 and God’s essence individuates God only. Each attribute, as an adequate total causal chain, individuates God-substance in a certain manner. Namely, each adequate total causal chain constitutes God’s essence, God’s identity and uniqueness, in a certain manner as a thinking substance, extended substance, etc. However, all the attributes together exhaustively, completely, constitute the individuating factor of substance, without which it would have been an abstract, empty whole. Moreover, since, according to 2def2, taking away the essence of a thing means that the thing is necessarily taken away, substance without an exhaustive individuating factor, constituted by all the attributes together, is therefore entirely “taken away.” However, substance’s essence as such a factor must be conceived by means of the complete a posteriori procedure. On the other hand, the general concept of God’s essence (e.g., in 2p45 or 2p46d: the knowledge of God’s essence is “common to all and is equally in the part and in the whole”), namely, the general laws and common properties of finite beings and of the totality as well, is conceived by the a priori procedure. Such God’s essence is a common property of all things and not an individuating factor, whereas, in Letter 50 (G IV, p. 240) Spinoza refers to God’s essence as that which cannot be generally, universally conceived.

The identity and individuation of a particular thing is similarly maintained by an adequate cause—manifested as a particular body in the attribute of extension and as a particular idea in the attribute of thought, which is a link in the total causal chain. The same person is the same adequate cause, which is both a thinking mode and an extended mode in the same order of nature, the same connection of causes, considered as two different [9] attributes. For instance, Tolstoy’s mind is the mental author, the adequate cause, of Anna Karenina as an idea or thought, and Tolstoy’s body is the adequate cause of the physical book entitled Anna Karenina. Yet, the mental author of the book as an idea and the physical writer of the physical book are the same author, Tolstoy. The adequate cause, namely the only and indispensable cause, of Anna Karenina is Tolstoy, who is identified as a mind in the total causal chain of adequate ideas (which encompasses the total reality), and who is also identified as a body in the total adequate causal chain of bodies (which encompasses the same reality). There is one reality, substance or Deus sive natura, the universal power expressing itself in different total expressions, each including the finite, particular power that is Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina. “So also a mode of extension,” e.g., Tolstoy’s body, the extended Tolstoy, “and the idea of that mode,” e.g., Tolstoy’s mind, the thinking Tolstoy, “are one and the same” individual person, Tolstoy, “but expressed in two ways.”

Adequate causality is the principle of identity and unity of substance too. Natura naturans —God as the free cause, as the causa sui—maintains his unity and identity, since he is the same adequate cause of all particular things together and because they all “are in him.”

Intelligibility and Objectivity

An intellect conceives both substance’s unity (or the concept of substance; 1def3) and the distinctness of each one of its attributes (1def4). Substance’s unity and all its finite and infinite differentiations (expressions, manifestations, explications, considerations, etc.) are entirely and exhaustively intelligible, and that is what infinite intellect is all about. Adequate causality (which maintains that unity and differentiation) is phrased in terms of clear and distinct perception (3def1), which is typical for an intellect alone. Furthermore, in addition to its intelligibility, adequate causality equally guarantees both aspects of the unity considered at 2p7s. Hence, each real particular thing, consisting united in “its” modes, is an effect of the total cause, i.e., God consisting of all “his” attributes united: “so of things as they are in themselves [ut in se sunt], God is really the cause insofar as he consists of infinite attributes” (2p7s, 90/28‑29).

Spinoza describes an attribute as “conceived through itself” (1p10), and this also characterizes substance (1def3). Moreover, natura naturans, which is “such attributes of substance as express an [the] eternal and infinite essence” (1p29s), is understood as “what is in itself and is conceived through itself” (1p29s), as much as substance is (1def3). At 1p29s Spinoza refers to 1p14c1, which points out God’s uniqueness (or singularity), as indicated by 1p10s. In this manner, Spinoza points out what is common to substance and attribute (cf. Letter 9, G IV, p. 46; Curley’s translation, p. 195). But what is the difference between them, since they both are total (infinite), unconditioned, and independent (each of which is causa sui)? Spinoza characterizes this difference in the following manner: Substance or God is “absolutely infinite” (1def6, 1p10s, 1p14d and c1, 1p32d), whereas an attribute is “infinite in its own kind” (1def6e, Letter 4, G IV, p. 13; Curley’s translation, p. 171) or “supremely perfect in its kind” (G IV, p. 14; Curley, p. 172). God alone is absolutely perfect (Letter 36, G IV, p. 185; 1p11d3s: “the existence of an absolutely infinite, or [sive] perfect, Being—i.e., God”), and “the divine nature has absolutely infinite attributes (by 1def6)” (1p16d). We must also bear in mind that each of the attributes, although perfect and infinite, negates the others (according to Letter 36, G IV, p. 184; cf. 1def6e: “if [10] something is only infinite in its own kind, we can deny infinite attributes of it”), whereas, concerning God-substance, “whatever expresses essence and involves no negation pertains to its essence” (1def6e). Each attribute is different from all the others and negates them all, e.g., the attribute of extension is not that of thought, even though it expresses each particular thing, which is a finite thinking mode in the attribute of thought, as an extended mode in the attribute of extension. Such negation refers to the specific nature of each one of the attributes as it is in itself. As a specific infinite differentiation, an attribute negates all the others. Spinoza, unlike Parmenides, is not deterred from differentiations that are negations in reality; on the contrary, all the infinite negations together constitute the absolute fullness of reality. In other words, expressing together the absolutely infinite substance, all the attributes do not negate anything. Rather, each one makes its own specific contribution to the absolute totality of substance. Hence, in the absolutely infinite substance, “whatever expresses essence and involves no negation pertains to its essence” (1def6e). In substance, all attributes together are complementary and absolutely affirm its existence. Spinoza synonymously mentions “God” and “all God’s attributes” (Deus, sive omnia Dei attributa at 1p19 and 1p20c2).

Substance and Attributes: Unity and Its Differentiations

We are now in a position to clarify and conclude in what way substance and attribute are the same and what the difference is between them. Substance is the total (infinite), independent, unconditioned (causa sui), and exhaustive (absolute, infinite in all respects, absolutely perfect) reality that systematically and coherently encompasses (includes in itself) all particular existing things. Each particular existing thing, as included in substance, exhaustively expresses itself in all respects, that is, each such thing participates as a link in all possible total causal chains that share the same order and connection of things, which is the same total causal chain. Each particular thing is considered a necessary link, i.e., a finite mode, in a total causal chain, and so it is considered a participant in every attribute. Such participation in all the attributes together exhaustively expresses the individuality, uniqueness, and particularity of each particular thing, and does not split its unity and identity. The same particular thing participates as different modes in different attributes, and yet it is the same particular thing.

The essence of God, i.e., God’s individuating factor or God’s identity, is exhaustively constituted by the total adequate causal chain consisting of all the attributes together, whereas it is constituted in a certain manner by each attribute as an adequate total causal chain (or as it “expresses a certain eternal and infinite essence” [1p10s], “an essence infinite in its own kind” [1p16d]). God “has” one, single essence. It means that God is the most concrete, “fullest,” systematically (not aggregatively) comprehensive being that lacks nothing. Substance is the whole of nature as one coherent system (according to Letters 30 and 32). What appears to be discrepancy, contrariety, and conflict in the heterogeneity of the particular things existing in nature, eventually turns out to be accommodation, unification, and coherence, as far as nature as a whole is concerned (Letter 32, G IV, pp. 171‑73).

Spinoza mentions intellect’s perception not only at 1def4, but implicitly at 1def3, since this definition of substance explicitly mentions substance’s concept (conceptus) and that substance “is conceived through itself.” It should be conceived by an intellect, the same [11] intellect that perceives the attributes of substance. The intelligibility of nature, differentiated in infinite differentiations, is clearly indicated at 2p7s. The complete, comprehensive, and exhaustive conception of reality as a coherent whole is actually its conception as substance, the only substance. Such a conception refers to any particular existing thing as the same finite being that is expressed in each one of all the attributes.

An attribute is an expression, explication (“explanation;“ 1p20d, 2p5, 3p2d) or manifestation “of” the total reality. It is total reality, which, including all particular things, is infinite, independent, and unconditioned (causa sui), like substance itself. Yet, each attribute is not absolutely infinite but infinite “in its own kind,” namely it is not the exhaustive expression of reality, even though it expresses entirely or includes in it, in a certain specific manner, all of reality’s particular differentiations. From the point of view of an intellect, or from an epistemological point of view, an attribute is a total, unconditioned, yet inexhaustive, perception of reality as a whole. It is a perception that inexhaustively perceives all particular existing things. It is an incomplete knowledge of everything, whereas substance is the absolute, complete, and exhaustive expression, manifestation and explication of the entire reality as the coherent whole. From the point of view of an intellect, or from an epistemological point of view, substance is the absolute, exhaustive knowledge of the entire reality.

Attributes’ Extension and Intension

Considering their extension or amplitude, there is no difference whatsoever between substance and each of its attributes, or between substance and all the attributes together, or among the attributes themselves. The difference is in their intension or “force.” Each attribute shares the same extension or amplitude, which is the range or scope of substance. The complete, full, or absolute intension of the content of this scope is substance, which is the exhaustive identity and unity of all the attributes.

The really distinct attributes actually constitute one, coherent total reality, namely, one substance. To that extent, at least, Spinoza’s metaphysics is a monistic pluralism.


1 Alan Donagan, “Spinoza’s Dualism,” in Richard Kennington, ed., The Philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1980), 89‑102. Following Gueroult, Donagan points out the possibility that “a substance may possess a plurality of really distinct attributes entails that such a substance must in some sense have a plurality of really distinct essences” (p. 93). This must put too heavy a burden on the unity of the one substance. I prefer Donagan’s 1973 interpretation to that of 1980. See his “Essence and the Distinction of Attributes in Spinoza’s Metaphysics,” in M. Grene, ed., Spinoza: A Collection of Critical Essays (New York: Anchor/Doubleday, 1973), 164‑81. It is more plausible to argue that “two attributes might on the one hand be really distinct, and on the other constitute or express the same essence” (p. 180). Nevertheless, Donagan did not clarify this somewhat paradoxical stance. Neither did he sufficiently clarify it in his most recent view, published in 1991. See “Substance, Essence and Attribute in Spinoza, Ethics I,” in Yirmiyahu Yovel, ed., God and Nature: Spinoza’s Metaphysics, volume 1 of Spinoza by 2000: The Jerusalem Conferences (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 1‑21.
2 Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), xiv; cf. 74, 82 (“the fundamental thrust of Spinoza’s system is anti-dualistic, that is, a form of materialistic monism”).
3 Jonathan Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 147.
4 See Edwin Curley “On Bennett’s Interpretation of Spinoza’s Monism;“ and Jonathan Bennett, “Spinoza’s Monism: A Reply to Curley,” In Yovel, ed., God and Nature, 35‑59.
5 Bennett, Study, 147.
6 Bennett, Study, 146. Bennett’s interpretation as to the perception of the attributes by an intellect is entirely incompatible with Spinoza’s understanding of intelligibility (e.g., at 1 p 16 and d, or at the end of 1 Appendix). Cf. Margaret D. Wilson, “Infinite Understanding, Scientia Intuitiva, and Ethics I.16,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 8 (1983): 181‑82; Wilson, “Notes on Modes and Attributes,” The Journal of Philosophy 78 (1981): 585.
7 I.e., Ethics I, proposition 30, demonstration. The following abbreviations are used hereafter: a axiom, c corollary, d demonstration, def definition, e explication, p proposition, s scholium. The pagination follows the relevant volume of Gebhardt’s edition of Spinoza Opera (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1925). I quote from Curley’s translation. See The Collected Works of Spinoza, volume 1, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 434
8 See Donald Davidson, “Spinoza’s Causal Theory of the Attributes,” in Yovel, ed., Desire and Affect: Spinoza as Psychologist, volume 3 of Spinoza by 2000) (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming). Davidson ascribes ontological monism and a multiplicity of conceptual systems, i.e., the attributes, to Spinoza. This must render the attributes subjective and even inadequate, because their epistemological multiplicity is not compatible with their “ontological monism.” Spinoza’s attributes, having an objective ontological status, must be more than just “systems of explanation.” Still, Davidson’s view depends on ontological reductionism. Finally, in contrast with what Davidson ascribes to 3p2, 2p7s as I interpret it below does explicitly rule out “what we would call the causal interaction of particular physical events with particular mental events.”
9 Which is not Bennett’s “identity of properties” (Study, 141). Neither attributes nor modes are properties. There is no way to explain how an attribute as “a property” can constitute an essence without making Spinoza’s essence/properties distinction meaningless. He mentions this distinction at 1p16d, according to which properties must be inferred from the very essence of a thing (and not vice versa, according to TdIE, sect. 95, 97). Moreover, what belongs to a thing’s essence “can neither be nor conceived without the thing” (2def2). Hence, at 2p10c,s Spinoza, referring to the definition of essence (2def2), explicitly remarks that God does not pertain to the essence of singular things. Consequently, finite modes are not properties of God’s essence, even though God is their cause. God’s properties are not finite modes at all, but rather characterizations such as infinity, indivisibility, immutability, etc., (2p10s). In the Short Treatise Spinoza clearly distinguishes God’s attributes from his properties (Part 1, ch. 7, sect. 6). The possessive form (“substance has attributes” [e.g., at 1p10s]) does not reflect Spinoza’s own understanding of the relation between substance and its attribute. (Cf. Curley’s translation, p. 416, note 24.) Curley is correct in taking “constitute” quite literally and in rejecting, as Donagan did, Bennett’s suggestion to render constituere by “characterize,” which is essential for Bennett’s interpretation.
10 I found that term in M. W. Calkins, The Persistent Problems of Philosophy, 5th ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1929), 277‑306 (Ch. 7: “Monistic Pluralism: The System of Spinoza”). However, I understand it quite differently and use it in my own way.
11 Cf. E. M. Curley, Spinoza’s Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), 74: “Deducing the finite solely from the infinite, in ... [Spinoza’s] philosophy, is in principle impossible. Even an infinite intellect could not do it.”
12 About the two procedures, cf. H. F. Hallett, Creation, Emanation, and Salvation (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1962), 17‑21. My elaboration of the issue is different.
13 Wissenschaft der Logik, Part 1, ed. G. Lasson (Hamburg: Felix Meiner, 1971), 151. Some of the subjective interpretations of the attributes rely on Hegel (e.g., J. E. Erdmann’s).
14 Cf. H. F. Hallett, Aeternitas: A Spinozistic Study (London: Oxford University Press, 1930), 145, 157, 324‑25; E. E. Harris, Salvation from Despair: A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1973), 64‑65.
15 Cf. this particular point with M. D. Wilson, “Notes on Modes and Attributes,” p. 585. Unfortunately, Donagan, Bennett, and Curley all blur or ignore the crucial difference between modes of the two attributes and the same individuum or particular thing. Hence, Bennett, interpreting 3p2s, writes that “my mind is the same mode as my body” (Study, 141); Curley, referring to 2p21s, mentions “the identity of the modes” (Beyond, 70), and, finally, Donagan, mentioning 2p7s, writes that “corresponding modes are one and the same” (“Substance, Essence and Attribute,” 18). Mind and body are different modes of the one and the same individuum or particular thing.
16 The Correspondence of Spinoza, trans, and ed. A. Wolf (London: Frank Cass & Co , 1966), 224.
17 Correspondence of Spinoza, 225.
18 See my “Spinoza’s Principium Individuations and Personal Identity,” International Studies in Philosophy 15 (1983): 41‑57.
19 Cf. Robert Brandom, “Adequacy and the Individuation of Ideas in Spinoza’s Ethics,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 14 (1976): 161.

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