Feb 242010


Jacob Glover1Jacob Glover


In Proposition 15 in Part One of his Ethics Spinoza declares, “Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.” For Spinoza, everything that exists is in God. Spinoza’s use of the preposition “in” is ambiguous because it doesn’t clarify whether he means physically encapsulated within God or metaphysically in God as a non-physical something pervasive in existence. Nonetheless the second half of Spinoza’s proposition implies that, though he used “in,” which implies an “out,” nothing can exist in the “out,” because everything that exists, exists in this relationship to God described by the word “in.”  Spinoza proposes a monistic, as opposed to a dualistic, universe[1]. Instead of the universe existing with a transcendent God outside of it; God, according to Spinoza, must be present in existence because “nothing can be or be conceived” without Him. This brings the argument once again back to the word “in” which seems to mean that somehow all things exist within God and simultaneously there is some part or element of God in all things that exist. In Proposition 15 Spinoza describes an immanent universe where God both contains and flows throughout all things, the world of existence. There are three fundamental parts to Spinoza’s universal structure: substance, attributes, and modes.

Substance “is in itself and is conceived through itself”(1).  In other words substance is an ethereal material; it is somehow imperceptible as itself, perhaps as the idea of substance, but perceptible by means of what it contains which also happens to be itself. To Spinoza substance and God are synonymous. He writes, “There can be, or be conceived, no other substance but God.”  Substance or God is a singular immaterial material that is wholly containing and wholly invasive throughout the universe, according to Proposition 15. Substance or God is eternal, an uncaused cause of everything. Spinoza writes, “if anyone asserts that substance is created, he at the same time asserts that a false idea has become true.” There is no separation between existence and God for Spinoza and that is what makes his universe monistic.

Humans do not perceive substance or God directly, rather they perceive an aspect or part, for want of a better word, of God—what Spinoza calls an attribute. (Of course to say “part” is ambiguous because it suggests divisibility in God, however the ambiguity exists in that substance, to Spinoza, must exist indivisibly but at the same time exist within even the smallest “part” of the universe.)   Attributes are not the particular things perceived but the property of perceptibility. They are “that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence” and furthermore  “each entity must be conceived under some attribute.” It seems that attributes work in two ways. In one way they are what appear to be the essences, basics, or fundamentals of substance. But in the same way they are property of perceptibility in particular instances of existence within substance. Although, I suppose, to Spinoza those are not two separate qualities because substance is all things. In other words, according to Spinoza, it would be enough to simply state that attributes make substance perceptible i.e. attributes make all things perceptible.

Humans have access to only two attributes of God or substance; objects of thought and objects of solid matter with dimensionality or extension (takes up space). But the attributes are distinct, that is they exist “one without the help of the other.” According to Spinoza the attribute of thought has no effect on the attribute of extension; they exist wholly separate as themselves but nonetheless they are both the essence of substance or God. Like the active intellects of the Neo-Platonists, attributes are intermediary properties between substance (God) and humans, but attributes are not like active intellects of the Neo-Platonists in the sense that they are passive properties of substance, which human intellect or the senses can act upon. To Spinoza the attribute of thought can only be perceived by thinking. And the attribute of extension, physical matter, can only be perceived by the senses. He writes that an attribute “must be conceived through itself.” The attributes exist within substance (God) but only as a means to perceive or intellectualize the universe.

The third part of Spinoza’s system is the mode. Modes are actually in the mind of the experiencing person or subject. The perception or thought within the mind of a human. But what exactly is a mode? There are two kinds of modes: modes of thought or ideas and modes of extension or physical objects. Speaking of physical matter Spinoza writes, “matter is everywhere the same and there are no distinct parts in it except in so far as we conceive matter as modified in various ways.” Spinoza here stresses the point that the attribute of extension exists the same and indivisibly throughout the universe, but for humans to sense it or conceptualize it the attribute must be modified; it must be a particularized instance of extension. A particular book is a mode of extension, but the ability of that book to take up space and be sensed is the attribute of extension. In another passage Spinoza writes: “we conceive water to be divisible and to have separate parts in so far as it is water, but not in so far as it is a corporeal substance.”  In other words water is like the attribute of extension. As matter, or a mode, water can be divided, as a concept, or for lack of a better term, “waterness” it is indivisible. As a mode the attribute of extension exists as an individual thing but as the attribute proper it exists in its entirety indivisible. Modes are particular; they involve substance but are not directly it.

The universe Spinoza describes in Proposition 15 is made of three parts: substance, attributes and modes. The major problem then is that Spinoza appears to want this system to be immanent, yet at the same time exist as somehow divided in these three parts. It seems as if there is some sort of understood cohesiveness that contradicts this division. To me the best way to conceptualize this cohesive force is to me, is to think of substance as the text of a story. The actual physical text, alone, is not perceivable. But with, the property of readability, analogous to Spinoza’s attributes, the text becomes readable. But this property of readability works in two ways like the attributes. It not only makes the physical text legible and not gibberish, but also gives the story continuity which allows the reader to experience the smallest details and episodes within the story. These small details, therefore, are analogous to what Spinoza would call modes. To me, it seems that the organic evolving continuity that makes a story understandable is analogous to the cohesion that counter acts the apparent division within Spinoza’s monistic universe.

Spinoza’s system revolves around the ideas that substance is the basic ethereal material; substance and God are the same thing; all natural objects and thoughts “come” from, and inhere in, substance; substance has attributes (properties of perceptibility) of extension and thoughts; particular instances of substance are perceivable or intelligible because of the attributes and these instances are modes. Of course what’s truly crucial to Spinoza’s philosophy is its monism. That is to say that there is no second world, or realm, or transcendence, all things exist within existence and are part of substance (God). Spinoza writes, “For in the universe there exists nothing but substances and their affectations.” In other words nothing is but that which exists within substance. To Spinoza all these parts (substance, attributes and modes) are separate only in their accessibility by the intellect. There is no separation of levels or realms for Spinoza, but a constant existence of substance or God, attributes, and modes simultaneously, inherently and infinitely.

Jacob Glover



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. See Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought

  7 Responses to “On Spinoza: Essay — Jacob Glover”

  1. Dote away. I’m vicariously attending college again through your son’s postings. Does he let you edit his essays?

  2. Jacob,

    I must confess, my acquaintance with Spinoza was brief, but I see several things falling back into place here. Your comparison of text and reading I thought especially good and I hope is correct.

    I also thought Spinoza was one of the odder philosophers. What do you think, did he come up with an attractive alternative to the problem of dualism or did his assumptions about God and existence force him into an unworkable position?

    • Gary,

      Sorry it has taken me so long to respond, but essays and Attic Greek have an incredible ability to parasite away time. Excuses aside… Spinoza, I think, saw the world as he describes. And the point of that rather obvious statement is that really if a dualist, say Plotinus, were to argue with Spinoza I think that they would both probably back themselves into corners. It comes down to: how do we explain this inexplicable thing or that one? And what these philosophers produce, their philosophies or cosmologies, tend to be just that — an explanation. I am not, by any means, arguing that all is relative, but I think that Spinoza’s answer or alternative, as you say, is an expression of what everyone is trying to say: “we can’t explain why we can’t explain what we can’t explain, but this much we can narrow down to something fathomable, and the rest well we are just going to kind of fudge that…” Plotinus says it best for me: a “leaning [of] the soul towards Him by aspiration.” Him of course being God but to me it’s Truth and the Good. We extend ourselves, in a well thought out, confident proposition, but it’s just a packed up hope that we figured out how to make sense of even one iota of the unexplained.

      Forgive my wandering ramblings, as an answer to your question, but it made me think.


  3. Jacob,

    Well, you’ve got me thinking now. I love it when the answers are better than the questions asked.

  4. Jacob,

    I was always intrigued with the language philosophers used to explain their ideas, the things we do not understand, how this language changed over the ages. And, to be candid, much of it to me was forced and artificial. Yet how much better is our language now? What does it explain? What does it leave out? I always respected the ambition of philosophy.

  5. Jake,

    Jake–I meant to respond to this when it first appeared. Great job. I think this is about as clear as you can make it. Many years ago, fascinated by Spinoza as both a man and a post-Cartesian idealist, I wrestled with his Substance, Attributes, and Modes, but never sorted them out quite as lucidly as you do here. He remains to me the noblest and most sublime of men. His theological-political Tractatus is one of the dozen books that most shaped my life. And his apparent fusion of God & Nature, filtered through the Romantics and Einstein, constitutes what “religion” I have. Your remarks here have sent me back to the Ethics.

    • Hi Pat,

      I have always found it among the highest praise for someone to say that my work has inspired some sort of hermeneutic return for him. So thank you very much.

      I will always have a soft-spot for Spinoza — partly because this essay was really a turning point for me writing wise — and partly because I, too, empathized with his religiosity which seems like a truly noble struggle. But he doesn’t struggle as a spectacle, he struggles personally and for the sake of deep understanding and faith. I like that.

      Lately, I have been in a seminar reading Plotinus. And I have been enjoying a lot of thinking about Plotinus in conjunction with Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. The seminar focused primarily on sensation and the way the soul interacts with nature. I think Plotinus (Ennead V) and Spinoza and Leibniz could make for a fabulous though incredibly difficult reading list.

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