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Readers of Spinoza’s philosophy have often been daunted, and some- times been enchanted, by the geometrical method which he employs in his philosophical masterpiece the Ethics. In Meaning in Spinoza’s Method Aaron Garrett examines this method and suggests that its pur- pose, in Spinoza’s view, was not just to present claims and propositions, but also in some sense to change the readers and allow them to look at themselves and the world in a different way. His discussion draws not only on Spinoza’s works, but also on those of the philosophers who influenced Spinoza most strongly, including Hobbes, Descartes, Maimonides, and Gersonides. This original and controversial book will be of interest to historians of philosophy and to anyone interested in the relation between form and content in philosophical works.

aaron v. garrett is Assistant Professor at Boston University. He has contributed to a number of publications and is the editor of Francis Hutcheson’s An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections (2003), and of Animal Rights and Souls in the Eighteenth Century (2000).



Boston University


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Let us conceive now, if you please, that there is a little worm living in the blood which is capable of distinguishing by sight the particles of the blood, of lymph, of chyle, and the like, and capable of observing by reason how each particle, when it encounters another, either bounces back, or communicates a part of its motion, and so on. Indeed, it would live in this blood as we do in a part of the universe, and would consider each particle of the blood as a whole, not as a part. Nor could it know how all the parts of the blood are regulated by the universal nature of the blood, and compelled to adapt themselves to one another, as the universal nature of the blood requires, so that they harmonize with one another in a certain way.

(Letter XXXII – Voorburg, 20 November 1665)



page viii

List of abbreviations


Texts and editions




1 A worm in the blood: some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics


2 A few further basic concepts


3 Emendative therapy and the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione


4 Method: analysis and synthesis


5 Maimonides and Gersonides


6 Definitions in Spinoza’s Ethics: where they come from and what they are for


7 The third kind of knowledge and “our” eternity




Index of passages referred to and cited


General index




After I defended my dissertation my supervisor, Yirmiyahu Yovel, suggested that I try to answer two further questions: (1) What did Spinoza understand by the third kind of knowledge in the Ethics? (2) What is the relation between the Ethics and Spinoza’s earlier work, the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione? At the time I did not realize that, in trying to answer these two questions, I would need to rethink and revise how I understood Spinoza’s method and ultimately reject most of what I had written in my dissertation. My deepest thanks to Yirmiyahu Yovel for supervising my dissertation and then helping me to move well beyond it. The manuscript from which this book was built was originally called “A Worm in the Blood.” My editor properly pointed out that the title was somewhat nauseating and would probably condemn the book to be shelved in the biology section of bookstores. But please keep in mind that this was the original title and my guiding theme for finding some meaning in Spinoza’s method. Many people have helped me with writing this book, only a few of whom

I can list. The community of Spinoza scholars is, fittingly, one of the kindest and most thoughtful in academe, and I have benefited greatlyfrom it. Henry Allison, Michael Della Rocca, Shelly Kroll, Justin Steinberg, Amelie Rorty, and Andrew Pyle all read the manuscript in full and provided many helpful comments. Michael, in particular, read two drafts (!), forced me to clarify much murk in the manuscript (although there is much remaining), and gave me countless specific criticisms and corrections from which I benefited enormously. All aided me greatly in turning a draft into a book. Tom Cook, Brett Doyle, Knud Haakonssen, Genevieve Lloyd, David Lyons, Regan Penaluna, Gideon Segal, Fred Tauber, and Wayne Waxman have all read sections of the manuscript and provided helpful comments. Roger Ariew, Ken Bronfenbrenner, Edwin Curley, Johannes Fritsche, Don Garrett, Ian Hunter, and Richard Tuck have helped me with specific ideas and I am very grateful to them. Pierre-Franc¸ois Moreau very kindly gave me

a copy of his translation of Meyer. Many thanks to Piet Steenbakkers, Ron




Bombardi, and above all Frank Mertens for helping me to track down the

source of the cover illustration. I have also been aided by the many students

I have taught Spinoza to over the years. Hilary Gaskin has been an ideal

editor, and I am grateful to her for all her help, as well as Gillian Maude and the staff at Cambridge University Press. Thanks also to my friends and

advisors at the NSSR, Richard Bernstein, Teresa Brennan, Agnes Heller, and Morgan Meis. I have benefited from the work of many scholars (as will be apparent), but I would like to thank a few who inspired me from the very beginning of my interest in Spinoza, in addition to those I have thanked above: Jonathan Bennett, Herman De Dijn, Stuart Hampshire, Alexandre Matheron, and G. H. R. Parkinson. Thanks to Iain McCalman and the Humanities Research Center of the Australian National University, and the Humanities Foundation of Boston.

I owe a great debt to Charles Griswold and Knud Haakonssen, and to

my many intellectually stimulating and thoughtful colleagues at Boston University. Thanks also to my family for constant support. This book is dedicated to my late grandfather Abraham Klein and to my late teacher Carl Cohen. Carl Cohen taught me that if human history is not rational at least humans ought to be. My grandfather taught me that some of the deepest ties can be elective. It was on his bookshelf I found my first copy of Spinoza’s Ethics.

The publisher has used its best endeavours to ensure that any URLs for external websites referred to in this book are correct and active at the time of going to press. However, the publisher has no responsibility for the websites and can make no guarantee that a site will remain live or that the content is or will remain appropriate.


ATOeuvres de Descartes, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery

(Paris: J. Vrin, 196476).


Cogitata Metaphysica


The Collected Works of Spinoza, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton University Press, 1985).


De Corpore


Discourse on Method


Korte Verhandeling


Nagelate Schriften


Principles of Descartes’ Philosophy


The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, ed. and trans. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny, 3 vols. (Cambridge University Press, 198891).


Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione


Tractatus Politicus


Tractatus Theologico-Politicus


Texts and editions

All English translations of Spinoza’s Ethics are my own except when noted. Some are taken from Edwin Curley (ed. and trans.), The Collected Works of Spinoza (Princeton University Press, 1985). Translations from Curley’s Ethics will be abbreviated as CW , and this abbreviation will also be used when I make reference to his editorial apparatus and commentary. Curley’s translations are far superior to mine, but I have relied on my clumsier translations to get across some of the technical oddities in Spinoza’s Latin. All passages cited from the Principia Philosophia Cartesianae, the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione, and the Korte Verhandeling are from Curley’s edition, and Curley’s translation is used. The abbreviation NS in some of Curley’s translations refers to variant readings from the Nagelate Schriften, the Dutch translation of Spinoza’s works. Thanks to Princeton University Press for allowing me to cite from Curley’s edition. Latin quotes will be referenced to Carl Gebhardt (ed.), Spinoza Opera, 6 vols. (Heidelberg: Carl Winter Verlag, 1925). Although the new French critical edition of Spinoza, Pierre-Franc¸ois Moreau (ed.), Spinoza: Oeuvres (Paris: PUF, 1999–), estab- lishes texts which supersede Gebhardt, the edition references the standard Gebhardt page numbers. I will use the following standard abbreviations throughout: quotes from the Ethics will be simply referenced by part and number (i.e., “iiip4”). The Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione will be abbreviated TIE and referenced by paragraph number (i.e., “TIE 99”). Abbreviations employed in the text to refer to Spinoza’s other works will be TTP (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus), TP (Tractatus Politicus), PP (Principia Philosophiae Cartesianae), and KV (Korte Verhandeling). All will be refer- enced by chapter and section numbers and when necessary Gebhardt page (abbreviated by volume and page), except the PP which will be referenced by proposition. Spinoza’s letters will be cited in the text as “Letter” followed by a roman numeral number; i.e. Letter 30 will be cited as “Letter XXX.” All translations from Spinoza’s letters are from, Abraham Wolf (ed. and trans.), The Correspondence of Spinoza (London: Allen and Unwin, 1928),



Texts and editions

except when noted. Hobbes’ De Corpore will be abbreviated in the text as

DC followed by chapter and section numbers. Descartes’ “Essay” which

opens the Discourse on Method will be abbreviated DM and referenced by

its sections (i.e. DM III). All passages from Descartes will be abbreviated

AT and cited from the Adam and Tannery edition, Charles Adam and

Paul Tannery, Oeuvres de Descartes (Paris: J. Vrin, 1982). Translations are

from John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny (ed. and trans.), The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, 3 vols. (Cambridge University Press, 198891).


This is a book about Spinoza, one of the greatest philosophers of the seventeenth century, or of any time. He is also a particularly contro- versial philosopher and particularly difficult to understand. The con- troversies primarily stem from the fact that Spinoza’s two best-known works, the Ethics and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, contain forceful criticisms of some of the central pillars of revealed religion. As an alter- native to revealed religion, Spinoza offered a rigorous and powerful phi- losophy – most notably a metaphysics that demonstrated the necessity in and eternity of nature and equated nature with God – that, he argued, underlay whatever truths could be found in religion and philosophical theology. 1 Consequently, Spinoza was viewed by many of his contemporaries as a dangerous and nearly Satanic figure. Dutch Calvinists, liberal Hobbesians, and many key Enlightened figures of the scientific revolution all united in vigorously attacking the TTP and the Ethics. 2 Furthermore, these attacks

1 Spinoza’s main disagreement with his friend Lodewijk Meyer on this issue draws out Spinoza’s position on the relation between and distinctness of philosophy and religion. Whereas the Lutheran Meyer (like Maimonides) thought that there was philosophy in Scripture, and that Scripture ought to be understood as expressing the truths of philosophy, Spinoza thought that Scripture contained no philosophy, a few moral truths, and a great deal of history of brutal and primitive desert nomads. Spinoza did not think philosophy could or would replace religion, but rather that the truth of philosophical theology lies in any proximity it bears to the truth of the metaphysics and epistemology that he argues for. The rest is history, politics, and stubborn superstition. Given that one cannot get rid of religion, the problem is how to control it in such a way as to allow for freedom of thought – see TTP XX. See also J. Samuel Preus, Spinoza and Irrelevance of Biblical Authority (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

2 As examples of the attacks on him by contemporaries who differed on many other substantive issues:

the Calvinist Blijenburgh attacked Spinoza in letters and publications, the powerful liberal Hobbesian Lambertus Velthuysen, whose favor Spinoza wished to curry, was horrified by the TTP and wrote a book against it, and the great ideologist of early modern science Robert Boyle both attacked Spinoza in his publications and left a bequest to set up a series of lectures – the Boyle lectures – combating the sort of “atheism” represented by Spinoza.



Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

did not subside with Spinoza’s death in 1677, but rather continued for centuries. 3 Spinoza’s philosophy was also admired by many free-thinkers and philosophes. 4 In the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century Spinoza even became the secular saint of a kind of mystical pantheist deism for authors like Goethe, Schelling, and Coleridge. In the twenti- eth century Spinoza has been credited with, among many other things, a founding role in modern empirical psychology, psychoanalysis, Marxism, Nietzscheanism, liberalism, the modern Jewish secular identity, and too many other -isms and -ologies to mention. This brings up the issue of the difficulties that all readers have under- standing Spinoza. Aquick look at the very truncated list above of -isms and -ologies with which Spinoza has been credited reveals that there is little that holds them together other than a general agreement on Spinoza’s im- portance. This is a function of the difficulty of Spinoza’s texts, so daunting that some of Spinoza’s most virulent detractors hardly read his works at all! In the eighteenth century even those who did read Spinoza often relied on popular presentations of his philosophy, most influentially Pierre Bayle’s entry “Spinoza” in the Dictionnaire. Accordingly Spinoza has sometimes seemed to function less as a philosopher than as a sort of cipher of Enlight- enment aspirations, a Rorschach test through which to read heterodoxy, reason, mysticism, and whatever else one might like. Who was this philosopher who elicited such responses: contemptuous, devoted, confused, yet persistent and powerful? He was born in 1632 – the same year as John Locke, Samuel Pufendorf, and Richard Cumberland (and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe). He belonged to the first generation of philosophers to look back at the anarchic religious war of the late sixteenth and early and mid-seventeenth centuries from a comparatively stable polity periodically erupting in spasms of violence. 5 He was born into the fairly conservative Jewish community of Amsterdam. Amsterdam was one of the

3 Nearly one hundred years later the scandal attached to Spinoza was still profound enough that Lessing’s reported and disputed deathbed announcement to Jacobi that he (Lessing) was a Spinozist resulted in the greatest scandal of the German Enlightenment.

4 For example Toland, Boulanvillier, Bayle, Lessing, Diderot, and La Mettrie (as discussed in Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment (Oxford University Press, 2001)).

5 This state of stability was a long and ongoing process: the Peace of Augsburg and Westphalia and the conclusion of the English Civil War were gradually followed by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the Glorious Revolution, and the end of the Dutch conflicts between the Gomarists and Remonstrants, as well as the Orthodox and Republicans like Jan de Witt. Still Spinoza, like Locke, Pufendorf, and Cumberland, and unlike Hobbes and Descartes (much less the philoso- phers of the preceding generations like Lipsius and Bodin), was trying to make sense of the end of violence.



most economically, politically, artistically, and intellectually vibrant cities in Europe, although still caught in religious and political struggles which rose and ebbed over the course of Spinoza’s brief life. His father Michael was a merchant. Spinoza worked with him until his death, and then briefly and unsuccessfully attempted to run the fam- ily business with his brother. At some point, likely in the early to mid 1650s, Spinoza began to drift away from the Jewish community and into various free-thinking circles centered around Franciscus Van den Enden. 6 Whatever caused him to drift away probably also eventually resulted in his excommunication in 1656, although we cannot be sure. By 1656 Spinoza had already set a drastically different intellectual course from most of the other Jews of Amsterdam. 7 But expulsion from the Jewish community meant an inability to communicate and thus to financially in- teract with other Jews. Consequently, Spinoza had to pursue a different means of making a living, and so he became a lens grinder. We have a tendency sometimes to view early modern science through the writings of the great theorists, but it was an intellectual world centered on observa- tion, scientific instruments, and experiments. Spinoza was respected for the quality and precision of his lenses, and the excellence of his work placed him within the experimental circles at the cutting edge of early modern science, even if he was far more notorious – from the early 1660s onward – for his heterodox teachings and works. I consider relevant details of Spinoza’s biography over the course of this book. But rather than give more of the particular details of Spinoza’s life I will provide a broad sense of Spinoza’s intellectual milieu. The spheres in which Spinoza circulated were unusual for an early modern philosopher, although the Dutch rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel (who was perhaps one of Spinoza’s teachers) engaged with a similar variety of intellectual circles, as did a few others. I would like quickly to sketch the variety of these intellec- tual and social spheres by considering a contingent fact about Spinoza: his first name and the many languages into which it was rendered. Through this device we can get a synoptic view of the many milieus through and in which he circulated. 8

6 These biographical remarks are taken from Steven Nadler, Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and supplemented by Israel, Radical Enlightenment.

7 There were other excommunications, though, and there are some parallels between Spinoza’s relatively happy life and the far sadder tale of Uriel da Costa. See Carl Gebhardt (ed.), Die Schriften des Uriel da Costa (Amsterdam: Hertzberger, 1922).

8 On the issue of the complexity of signification for Spinoza see Yirmiyahu Yovel, Spinoza and Other Heretics (Princeton University Press, 1989), vol. 1. Much of the following is indebted to his discussion.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

In Latin Spinoza’s name was Benedictus or Benedict. Latin was the language of most of Spinoza’s philosophical writings and correspondence. It was the common language of European intellectuals that bridged their many linguistic and political rifts. It was the language of erudition and learning, the language in which Spinoza and the students of Franciscus Van den Enden performed Roman dramas, including works by Spinoza’s beloved Terence. It was the language of Spinoza’s major ancient influences: Seneca, Tacitus, Cicero, and Lucretius. Spinoza used Latin to communicate with intellectuals like Leibniz, Huygens, Oldenburg, Tschirnhaus, and many others. Latin was the language of science and thus was integral to his economic pursuits. Latin is the main language through which we know Spinoza the philosopher. In Hebrew, Spinoza’s first name was Baruch. It was the language of Scripture and religious observance in the community in which he was raised. 9 Hebrew was the religious language of the community he was even- tually excommunicated from, and the language of the theologians he coolly criticized in the TTP. Spinoza knew the language intimately and even wrote a Hebrew grammar (although he probably wrote it for the use of radical Gentiles in understanding Scripture as a historical document). Spinoza’s first name in Portuguese was Bento. Portuguese was the lan- guage of his home and family, the language of the country from which his family had emigrated to Amsterdam. It was also the workaday language of the Jewish community that he grew up in and of the business he shared with his brother upon his father’s death: “Bento y Gabriel d’Espinosa.” 10 This language was, like Hebrew, intertwined with his Jewish roots. In the TTP Spinoza notes that, since the King of Spain granted civic rights and privileges to Spanish Jews who had been forced to convert to Christian- ity, the converso families quickly forgot their identity. But, as the King of Portugal denied the Portuguese Jews any social or political status, they held fast to the Judaism that had been taken away from them even after their forced conversion. Why not? For, despite their professions of Christian faith, they were still treated like Jews (TTP iii, iii/42). The Portuguese community in which Spinoza grew up, with its traditional culture and lan- guages and insular nature, was likely viewed by Spinoza the philosopher as

9 It is notable that Spinoza equates one of the lower forms of knowledge with the calculations of merchants (iip40s2). This is also the sort of knowledge on which theocratic authority is based.

10 See W. G. Van der Tak, “The Firm of Bento and Gabriel de Spinoza,” Studia Rosenthaliana 16 ( 1982 ),



pathological. At the same time Portuguese, and Spanish, clearly always had an appeal for Spinoza, and he owned a number of literary works including the novels of Cervantes. Portuguese was literally his mother tongue, the language of his mother Hanna and probably the language of his lullabies. Spinoza, of course, spoke a fourth language: Dutch. Dutch was the language of everyday life once he left the Jewish community, the lan- guage of his discussion circles, and the language of politics. It was also the language of important Dutch radical texts like his friend Adriaan Koerbagh’s Een Blomhofvan allerley Lieflijkheyd sonder verdriet, influen- tial political works like Pieter De La Court’s Politike Discoursen, as well as religious polemics like William van Blijenburgh’s De waerheyt van de christelijcke godst-dienst (against Spinoza). One of Spinoza’s works, the KV , has been handed down to us in Dutch, although it was probably translated from a lost Latin original. Spinoza’s Opera Posthuma was translated into Dutch immediately upon his death as De Nagelate Schriften (CW x), show- ing that Spinoza’s circle wished to expand his philosophy from highbrow Latin to the more colloquial but extraordinarily intellectually rich Dutch language. Benedict, Baruch, and Bento all mean the same thing, blessed or blessing. Spinoza’s goal in his most important work, the Ethics, was to lead readers, who were capable, to their own blessedness, or more accurately to help them lead themselves. In his writings Spinoza used the Latin word “beatitudo” for blessedness (wisely he did not use his own name), which he described as “our greatest happiness” consisting “in the knowledge of God alone, by which we are led to do only those things which love and morality advise” (ii49s). But the many translations of his name and many words for blessedness point toward the difficulty intrinsic to his undertaking. Spinoza straddled numerous communities with different cultures and needs and had many influences arising from his engagements with these different communities. How to show those who were capable the way to blessedness? How to help them to recognize their power and to understand God and nature? How to show them that the desire for blessedness underlaid their many tongues, and their many ways of speaking, even when they did not know this? How to show them that blessedness arose from understanding the metaphysical underpinnings of an apparently chaotic world, underpinnings which showed much that we take for granted to be either false or so many expressions of a unified God or nature? And, not the least, how to show that which he wished to show them was true?


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

Spinoza tried numerous tactics to get these points across in his different works, but the Ethics is clearly his ultimate statement on blessedness. 11 To this end, Spinoza employed a particular method, different from many of the other ways in which he had presented his philosophy over the course of his intellectual career. This book is concerned with exploring Spinoza’s method, and seeing how the method bears on and is related to the goals of the Ethics.

in more geometrico” – spinoza’s geometrical method

Philosophical interest in method, interest in the best way to access and to express truths about morals, God, nature, mathematics, and reality as such, is as old as philosophy itself. This is not surprising. If all men, or at least all philosophically disposed men, desire to know, some obvious questions arise quite immediately and naturally: “Can we know at all?” “If we can, what can we know?” “What is the best way to know and to access the most important truths?” These have not turned out to be the easiest philosophical questions, but they are some of the most fruitful, witness Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics and Metaphysics, Descartes’ Discourse on Method , Locke’s Essay, Hume’s Treatise, and many other of the greatest works of philosophy ancient, modern, and contemporary. Anumber of recent works in the history of philosophy have emphasized that many disparate sorts of philosophers – from Plato, Plotinus, and the Stoics to Locke, Hume, and Smith to Wittgenstein – share the idea that the purpose of a philosophical method is not just to offer a series of valid propositions or claims, but rather in some way to transform or change readers, to allow them to look at themselves in the world in a different way. What this different way is varies from philosopher to philosopher, but one constant is that a method must be constructed in such a manner as to allow readers to see the ways that the philosophy impacts them and their lives, and to learn to look at the world from a different perspective than they might otherwise. The issue of the transformative purpose of method is interrelated with the questions of whether we can know, what we can know, and how best to know. Many of the best-known philosophers prior to the twentieth century were not primarily interested in providing ingenious arguments in response to outstanding problems or questions, but wanted to change

11 The TP was written after the Ethics and was at least fairly complete, so one might claim it is the final word, but, as the TP is incomplete, and as it does not discuss metaphysics or mind, the Ethics still has pride of place.



readers, dialogue partners, or listeners, or to allow them to change them- selves, in such a way that they might become happier and wiser. Philosophy was not only viewed in terms of the solving of problems, but was also con- sidered worth pursuing insofar as it was edifying and therapeutic; and these two goals clearly ought not be mutually exclusive. Clarifying a philosophical problem or better understanding an important issue are also sorts of self- clarification, clearing up our heads and making us think a little straighter. This sort of procedure of clarification also might make us happy and wise, or at least not so sad and stupid. Much of what I will say about Spinoza in the following chapters will

respond to and follow from this basic point: that Spinoza’s philosophy is a kind of self-clarificatory therapy for those capable of self-clarification; that this self-clarification arises not just from reflection but also from other sorts of knowing; and finally that the choice of the method by which to establish appropriate knowledge and the vehicle or means by which to present it, as

a consequence, is absolutely central. Now I hope you are thinking: “That is an interesting, if somewhat fuzzy, way of presenting Spinoza and some of the motivations for his philosophy. But I have looked a bit at the Ethics, and no work of philosophy seems more ill-suited for such therapy. Spinoza’s Ethics is an exemplar of a sort of philosophical formalism that places validity of argument far above the

needs of the reader. The Ethics is a geometrical method, a philosophy bound by the laws of mathematical deduction. If this is a philosophical therapy,

it seems to be a philosophical analogue of the Polar Bear’s Club – the best

therapy is to jump into freezing cold water, only in this case into the iciest and least human reaches of reason.” This is a fair objection. I will try to respond to it in the chapters that follow, but first we need to know something about Spinoza’s method and its historical context. In the Ethics Spinoza derived a sequence of numbered propositions from definitions and axioms – much as Euclid did in the Elements – building each link in the expanding chain on the definitions, axioms, and propositions prior to it. Euclid derived the celebrated Proposi- tion 47 of Book I of the Elements – the claim that “in right-angled triangles the square on the side subtending the right angle is equal to the squares on the sides containing the right angle” – from prior and apparently far more obvious propositions about parallelograms (i.41) and angles (i.14). 12 In a

12 John Aubrey described Hobbes as converting to the geometrical method while reading Euclid’s Elements i.47. Hobbes was astonished by the content of Euclid’s proposition while at the same time recognizing the necessity by which i.47 had been derived from far more obvious propositions. See Aubrey’s “Life of Hobbes,” iii [1] and iv [8], in Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. and intro. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1994), lxiv and lvi–lxvii.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

similar manner Spinoza drew dramatic metaphysical and ethical results such as that “God is an extended thing” (iip3) from prior and apparently more obvious propositions. 13 Spinoza called the Euclidean manner in which he presented his philosophy the ordo geometricus or mos geometricus 14 – the geometrical order or manner or way. To present a philosophy in a geomet- rical manner was to write in ordine geometrico or in more geometrico. The mos geometricus is a striking way of arranging propositions, but what is most arresting is the way the arrangement affects readers of the Ethics. Gilles Deleuze opens his book Spinoza: Practical Philosophy with a quote from Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. One of Malamud’s characters comments about his experience reading Spinoza’s Ethics: “I read through a few pages and kept on going as though there were a whirlwind at my back. As I say, I didn’t understand every word but when you’re dealing with such ideas you feel as though you were taking a witch’s ride. After that I wasn’t the same man.” 15 Although the character is not describing the geometrical method, it is certainly a crucial part of the “witch’s ride,” the (apparently) strict necessity by which the reader and all things great and small, from God to the lowliest worm, are pushed forward, necessarily in a universe without end. The reader of the Ethics feels rather as if he or she plunged into a world of necessary reason where metaphysical principles, human actions, and appetites are treated – just as if it were a “Question of lines, planes, and bodies” (III “Preface,” ii/138).

13 Where Spinoza derived his propositions primarily from axioms and definitions, Euclid employed a third category of “postulates” or rules of construction. Spinoza employed postulates in the “physics” after iip13, but not in the main demonstrations of the Ethics. I will discuss this difference in chapter 5.

14 Piet Steenbakkers distinguishes between Spinoza’s method and the geometrical form or external order in which Spinoza presented a number of his works. See Spinoza’s Ethica from Manuscript to Print: Studies on Text, Form and Related Topics (Aachen: Van Gorcum, 1994). This is quite proper as

the subtitle of the Ethics reads ordine geometrico demonstrata, not in more geometrico, and as the logic textbooks of the seventeenth century commonly distinguished between method and order, following on the famous Renaissance controversy between Jacobo Zabarella and Francisco Piccolomini. See “De Doctrina Ordine Apologiae” (1584) in Jacobo Zabarella, Opera Logica (Cologne: Zetzneri, 1597), 3rd edn. In a crucial passage in the “Preface” to Ethics III, Spinoza claimed that for those who prefer to curse or laugh at the affections “it will doubtless seem strange that I should undertake to treat men’s vices and absurdities in the more geometrico.” Here Spinoza explicitly treats geometry as a mos, an essentially untranslatable term, meaning “way” or “manner” but also “custom” and, in the genitive plural, morals, character, and so on (and thus similar to ethica). Mos [I will leave the word untranslated as mos (singular) or mores (plural)] also usually signals a method and not just a mere ordering. I will argue that the mos geometricus is both a form or ordering and a method. But I certainly agree with Steenbakkers that this would be untenable if we construed the mos as a linear deduction from premise to consequence. See the excellent discussion in Steenbakkers, Spinoza’s Ethica From Manuscript to Print.

15 Quoted in Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City

Spinozistic Themes

Lights Books, 1988), 1. See also Thomas Cook, “AWhirlwind at my Back in Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer,” Studia Spinoziana 5 (1989), 528.



There is an important difference in the uses made by Spinoza and Euclid of the geometrical method. Unlike Euclid’s theorems, the propositions that Spinoza derived geometrically were not about secants and quadrilaterals, but rather concerned metaphysical first principles, minds, and that which is advantageous to human life and makes us happy and free. In Spinoza’s hands the method applies to all beings, not just geometrical figures, and it applies with equal necessity. Thus, in the Ethics Spinoza brought one of the most formal and rigorous mathematical methods to bear on philosophy and on our shared world. Spinoza wasfarfrom unique in presenting his philosophy in a geometrical manner. Writing in more geometrico was relatively common in the early and mid-seventeenth century. Such familiar philosophers as Pufendorf, Hobbes, and Descartes 16 presented some of their works or sections of their works in a geometrical manner, as did less-known figures like Cumberland, Arnold Geulincx, Jean-Baptiste Morin, and Erhard Weigel. 17 Well after Spinoza’s death Locke argued for a deductive science of morals (although not nec- essarily a geometrical science of morals) as did Samuel Clarke. And many who never wrote in a geometrical manner, like Francis Bacon, emphasized the utility of geometry (and pure mathematics generally) in remedying de- fects of the intellect and teaching men to avoid miring themselves in the senses. 18 Bacon also built his own philosophy on axioms and definitions – although not arranged in a geometrical order. In fact, the generation of philosophers born in 1632, Spinoza, Pufendorf, Locke, and Cumberland all at one time or another either tried to mathema- tize (if not always geometrize) morals or present morals as a deductive sys- tem. The reason why they all did this can best be seen through the example

16 I will discuss Hobbes and Descartes at length below. For Pufendorf see Wilhelm Schmidt-Biggemann (ed.), Elementa jurisprudentiae universalis in Thomas Behme (ed.), Samuel Pufendorf: Gesammelte Werke, vol. 3 (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1999).

17 Arnold Geulincx, Ethica (1665) in J. P. N. Land (ed.), Opera Philosophica (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1893), iii, 1271; Jean-Baptiste Morin, “Quod Deus Sit” (1635), translated in Roger Ariew, John Cottingham, and Tom Sorell (eds.), Descartes’ Meditations: Background Source Materials (Cambridge University Press, 1998, 23051); Erhard Weigel, Analysis Aristotelica ex Euclide resti- tuta (Jena, 1659). There is some question as to whether these authors influenced Spinoza. I believe Geulincx’s work appeared too late to be an influence on Spinoza’s mos geometricus, however Bernard Rousset argues that Spinoza’s choice of the title Ethica and other particulars of Spinoza’s “ethical” and political doctrines can be understood in relation to Geulincx in Geulincx entre Descartes et Spinoza (Paris: J. Vrin, 1999). It is hard to chart any direct influence between Morin and Spinoza. Weigel is the most underexplored connection. He was an important influence on Leibniz (cf. Konrad Moll, Der Junge Leibniz (Stuttgart: Fromman Verlag, 1978), vol. 1.), and on Pufendorf, and was well known in Protestant countries for Euclid Restituta which attempted to reconcile Aristotle and the moderns via geometry.

18 Bacon describes pure mathematics as a kind of gymnastic or tennis for the mind in Of the Advance- ment of Learning (iii. 360).


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

of Richard Cumberland. In his influential De Legibus Naturae Cumberland set out to combat Hobbes by presenting an alternative theory of natural law emphasizing man’s fundamentally benevolent character. Cumberland argued that in order to do this we need to render moral and political phi- losophy as a mathematical calculus. Cumberland – like Pufendorf, Locke, and Spinoza – was dramatically impacted by Hobbes’ De Cive. De Cive was published in 1642, a month after the beginning of the English Civil War. Hobbes intended it to be the third work in a trilogy called Elementa Philosophiae, the first part of which was De Corpore, Hobbes’ physics and methodology (not published until 1655 but existing in manuscript long before) and the second part De Homine (not published until 1658 but also long in manuscript) Hobbes’ theory of perception and his psychology of the passions. Even without the rest of the Elementa, De Cive had an enor- mous impact on European intellectuals. In it Hobbes proposed that man was fundamentally self-interested, that morals was an artificial structure imposed on the passions by authority, and that these were harsh realities and harsh solutions that had to be taken into account in helping men to lead relatively happy lives in the chaos of early modern Europe. In the “Epistle Dedicatory” to De Cive Hobbes made a remarkable assertion:

Philosophy is divided into as many branches as there are areas where human reason has a place, and takes the different names which the difference of subject matter requires, In treating of figures it is called Geometry, of motion Physics, of natural law, Morals, but it is all Philosophy; just as the sea is here called British, there Atlantic, elsewhere Indian, so called from its particular shores, but it is all Ocean. The Geometers have managed their province outstandingly. For whatever benefit comes to human life from observation of the stars, from mapping out of lands, from reckoning of time, and from long-distance navigation; whatever is beautiful in buildings, strong in defence-works and marvelous in machines, whatever in short distinguishes the modern world from the barbarity of the past, is almost wholly the gift of Geometry; for what we owe to Physics, Physics owes to Geometry. 19

This claim about the centrality of geometry, that it distinguishes the ancients from the moderns and that the moderns owe all their successes to it, is startling. Philosophers like Cumberland – who saw themselves as responding to Hobbes – also accepted Hobbes’ elevation of geometry and attempted to use it against the “Monster of Malmesbury” as Hobbes was sometimes called. If Hobbes was correct, then philosophy could be

19 Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed., trans. & intro. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge University Press, 1998), 45. On the history and import of De Cive see Richard Tuck’s excellent introduction to this volume, viii–lii.



geometrized like physics and natural reason could demonstrate necessary and unshakeable truths about metaphysics, morals, and politics, as certain as the truths of mathematics. It could establish moral principles of a different sort than Hobbes, if Hobbes could be shown to have made errors in his arguments. But Spinoza was clearly deeply sympathetic to Hobbes and took over many of Hobbes’ key insights. Hobbes’ mos geometricus could also shear away the rhetoric and cant of despots and bigots, and leave bare and shining propositions that held even when they most “kicked against the pricks,” truths that no rational mind could deny. In advocating the deductive science of morals, Locke argued it would provide a candle in the soul, illuminating even when the bigots “cram their Tenets down all Men’s Throats.” 20 Thus the mos geometricus had great allure to heterodox intellectuals, given the religious and social controversy surrounding much early modern philos- ophy. And it had particular allure to those like Locke, Cumberland, and Pufendorf who admired Hobbes (to varying degrees) and attempted to use his discoveries to counter him on particular issues. It is important to remember, though, that the mos geometricus was just one

of many mores with which early modern philosophers tinkered. Descartes, Leibniz, Malebranche, and numerous others offered their philosophies in a variety of dresses both to communicate with different audiences and to most effectively present different kinds of content. Descartes remarked in his early notes called Olympian Thoughts that, “[a]ctors taught not to let any embar-

rassment show on their faces, put on a mask

[and] mount the stage masked.” 21 As a philosopher he followed his own advice and donned many formal masks. The Principles offered the Carte- sian philosophy as a synthetic curriculum to replace the scholastic manuals and compendia of Dutch universities like Utrecht, and the Discourse spoke to the community of early modern mathematicians and natural scientists as a prelude to a new science and a reform of the old ones. The Meditations provided a rigorous treatment of metaphysics and epistemology cloaked in an astonishing synthesis of Jesuit, Augustinian, and Stoical meditative literature, and in the “Replies to Second Objections” Descartes presented some cardinal insights of the Meditations in more geometrico. Leibniz employed countless literary forms in his writings ranging from the semi-commentary of the Theodicy, to the pseudo-dialogue of the New Essays, to the Christological structure of the Discourse on Metaphysics (moving from God the Father to Jesus), and to the distilled Monadology.

I will now do the same


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

Malebranche ranged from the rambling – and extremely popular – essay- istic style of The Search after Truth to the Dialogues on Metaphysics and the skeletal Treatise on Nature and Grace. And so on down the list of seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century authors, major and minor. The mos geometricus was one of these many forms taken by early modern philosophy and seen as by no means unique to Spinoza, although indicative of a particular set of philosophical interests. Spinoza himself experimented with other forms, incorporating a dialogue into the KV , using the scholastic manual style in the “Metaphysical Thoughts” attached to the PP, and even opening the TIE with a Cartesian/Augustinean autobiographical prelude. Yet readers of early modern philosophy associate the mos geometricus with Spinoza alone. And this is unsurprising: many of the other authors who employed the style are now obscure, or, as with Descartes and Locke, it is considered tangential to their philosophies, or they are known through one of their less-geometrical works (as Hobbes is in the English-speaking world). Further, Spinoza’s mos geometricus is far more rigorous than the mores of the others (with the exception of Descartes), so, once a reader experiences the Ethics, it is difficult to view many of these other works as geometrical. Spinoza’s rigor makes his mos seem something entirely different. There is also the basic question of the relation of style to content in these different works. The fact that many early modern philosophers presented core sets of philosophical claims – whether Hobbes’ contract or Descartes’ cogito – in different works garbed in different rhetorical forms, implies that the content which they wished to express was divorced from the masks used to present it to different audiences. Spinoza wrote several other important philosophical works in addition to the Ethics. Some of these works share themes, arguments, and concepts, but, for Spinoza, the Ethics is clearly the cardinal presentation of his general philosophy, the TIE is at best a prelude to it, the KV a draft, and the TTP and the TP are concerned primarily with politics and not metaphysics. 22 As a consequence the Ethics has an authority among Spinoza’s works quite different from the Leviathan for Hobbes, the Monadology for Leibniz, or even the Meditations for Descartes (although this is the closest analogue). Spinoza wrote another work in ordine geometrico, the Principles of Descartes’

22 The Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione (TIE), which I will treat at length in chapter 3, is a prefatory treatise to the Ethics concerned with method. The Korte Verhandeling (KV ) is an early draft of the Ethics, only made widely available since 1851. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (TTP) is Spinoza’s political masterpiece arguing that a tolerant state will be a successful state. The Tractatus Politicus (TP) is an unfinished late theoretical work on politics, Spinoza’s final work. I will make a great deal of all of these works (with the exception of the TP) and Spinoza’s letters in this book.



Philosophy, a work I will discuss in the following, but this is a geometrical rendering of Descartes’ philosophyfor the purposes of teaching students not yet ready for Spinoza’s own philosophy. The Ethics is Spinoza’s metaphysics, philosophy of mind and ethics. Although there are important passages in other works, the Ethics is the only sustained and integrated presentation of the whole of Spinoza’s philosophy (excepting political philosophy). Given the cardinal place of the Ethics among Spinoza’s works and its striking presentation, we might expect there to be a relation between the presentation and the content (although keeping in mind that it is not necessarily a unique relation, as the PP is also presented in a geometrical form). In order to begin to think about what this connection is we ought to examine the content of the Ethics. The Ethics is divided into five relatively distinct sections made up of propositions that ultimately rest (either implicitly or explicitly) on the definitions and axioms which begin Part I. The structure of the Ethics mirrors one of Spinoza’s central metaphysical claims, that all follows from first principles and that philosophers err when they fail to identify and begin with adequate first principles. For Spinoza, the first principle from which all others arise and to which all others refer is God. The philosophers before him failed to create adequate philosophies because they misdefined, misunderstood, and anthropomorphized God, and thus misunderstood the various principles arising from God. Conversely, to understand first principles is to see the way in which all things necessarily follow from God. And, as this reflects the real metaphysical structure of nature, so Spinoza sets out a definition of God at the beginning of Ethics I from which he derives its many propositions. In this way, Spinoza’s mos geometricus seems uniquely suited for his con- tent, as it shows how and that propositions arise necessarily from a def- inition. If the definition the mos geometricus begins with is the adequate definition of God, then the necessary propositions which arise from this definition parallel and follow with the same necessity that all in nature follows from God. This is reinforced by a passage from the TIE:

As for order, to unite and order all our perceptions, it is required, and reason demands, that we ask as soon as possible, whether there is a certain being, and at the same time, what sort of being it is, which is the cause of all things, so that its objective essence 23 may be the cause of all of our ideas, and then our mind will (as we have said) reproduce Nature as much as possible. For it will have Nature’s essence, order and unity objectively. (TIE 99)


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

This passage seems to imply that our minds ought to reproduce nature as much as possible by discovering the certain being which is the cause of all things, and understanding what sort of being it is. Through this, our minds will “reproduce” the order, unity, necessity and essence of nature. This appears to be what the Euclidean structure of the Ethics attempts to do, to order philosophy, and our ideas and minds, in relation to our understanding of the definition of God. Unfortunately there are some basic and oft-repeated inadequacies of the mos geometricus which make the relation between the medium and the mes- sage, if suitable in theory, seemingly untenable in practice. First, the crucial feature of a Euclidean deduction, on which rests the claim to “reproduce” the objective order of nature, is that a geometrical method begins with definitions and axioms and derives propositions from them. The axioms are common features of minds and bodies, and Spinoza treats them as if they are intuitively obvious to all readers. We may, and should, interro- gate them. But it is not difficult to see where they come from and why Spinoza thinks them clear (even if he is wrong that these are truly common notions). 24 The definitions with which one begins a deduction, though, are the cru- cial support and warrant of the deduction. They lead to adequate principles when they are adequate and result in inadequate ideas when they are inad- equate. Spinoza assumes the former in the quote from the TIE cited above and apparently assumes that the definitions with which he begins the Ethics are adequate and will lead to adequate cognition. In the PP Spinoza as- sumes that the inadequate Cartesian principles upon which his geometrical presentation of Descartes’ philosophy are based result in various “errors,” or inadequate ideas. 25 Thus, in either case, the definitions are crucial for what follows from them. But from whence come the definitions and how are they justified? How do we justify the definition of God from which all derives, as well as the many other definitions employed throughout the work? It is not clear what such a justification would be. The definitions themselves must be clear and evident ideas, but this does not explain where they come from nor why a reader ought to agree to them if he does not recognize the ideas as

24 See particularly iip40s1, where Spinoza distinguishes axioms from “universals” arrived at through induction from the imagination.

25 In the “Preface” to the PP, likely written by Meyer but clearly agreed to in all its details by Spinoza, Meyer remarks the “Author has only set out the opinions of Descartes and their demonstrations, insofar as these are found in his writings, or are such as ought to be deduced validly from the foundations he laid. So let no one think that he is teaching either his own opinions, or only those which he approves of ” (i/131).



evident. This problem would have been evident to Spinoza, as Descartes spelled it out explicitly in the “Replies to the second set of Objections” to the Meditations, and used it to plead for the superiority of the analytic or investigative method over synthetic procedures such as the mos geometricus. One might hope to justify the definitions through the propositions that arise from them. This approach would be circular though, and to justify a cause through its effects would be invalid for Spinoza as knowledge of an effect 26 depends on knowledge of the cause (ia4), but the converse is clearly not always the case. Asecond problem is, if the Ethics presents the necessity of nature, why so many alternative proofs, scholia, and digressions? These seem to lessen the necessity and rigor of the deduction insofar as they make the deduction less of an efficient causal process directed toward a single end, like the efficient processes of nature. If the goal of the method is to allow the mind to represent nature, why so much in addition to definitions, axioms, propositions, and demonstrations? Athird objection was offered in a famous letter from Tschirnhaus to Spinoza (which I will discuss in chapter 6) – Letter LXXXII. In geome- try one rarely if ever infers a string of propositions from one definition or principle, rather propositions are inferred from a number of defini- tions. This is also the case in Spinoza’s Ethics. God is the first principle of Spinoza’s metaphysics from which all else derives. God has an infinite infinity of attributes, two of which are thought and extension. All modes of extension, all extended things, are what they are insofar as they are in and through the attribute of extension. Is Spinoza then saying that we literally deduce all extended things from the definition of attribute, that from a string of words or a group of ideas – “By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence” – arises all of extended nature? This would seem to be a rather unfortunate consequence of Spinoza’s claims about definitions representing the essences of things and from the demonstration of ip16:

Ip16: Out of the necessity of the divine nature, an infinity of infinite modes (that is, everything which can come under an infinite intellect) must follow. dem.: This Proposition ought to be manifest to anyone, if he attends to this fact, that the intellect infers many properties from the given definition of any thing which truly do follow necessarily from it (i.e., from the very essence itself ); and that it infers more properties the more the definition of the thing

26 By “knowledge” here Spinoza means true or adequate knowledge. I will discuss this at some length in chapter 2.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

expresses reality, i.e., the more reality the essence of the defined thing involves. But since the divine nature has absolutely infinite attributes (by d6), each of which also expresses an essence infinite in its own kind, from its necessity there must follow infinitely many things in infinite modes (i.e., everything which can fall under an infinite intellect).

This proposition, the cornerstone of Spinoza’s metaphysics, implies that just as many properties are derived from any given definition, so everything which falls under an infinite intellect can be inferred from the divine nature. Thus, it seems, if the definition of God that begins the Ethics is a true definition, then everything in our world should be able to be derived from it. But this is, at least on the surface, absurd. It seems to trade on an apparently insupportable ambiguity between real things and ideas of things and appeared hopelessly unworkable to Tschirnhaus and many of Spinoza’s otherwise sympathetic readers. I will argue that there are answers to these questions in Spinoza’s phi- losophy, and provide two sorts of justifications for Spinoza. First, I will argue that careful attention to the mos geometricus will help us better to un- derstand the role of definitions in his philosophy, how Spinoza conceives them, and why he thought them justified. This will show that the Ethics is not a dogmatic work in any normal sense. Second, I will argue that a basic puzzle in Spinoza’s philosophy – the importance that Spinoza accords to a third kind of knowledge – can be clarified through understanding Spinoza’s method. In order to address these and other questions I will assume the importance of the geometrical form of the Ethics for understanding some of its central philosophical claims. I will also assume that the structure of the Ethics is best understood in relation to Spinoza’s theory of knowledge. Spinoza argues in Ethics II that there are three sorts of knowledge (derived from a theory of four sorts of knowledge in the TIE). The first kind of knowledge, which Spinoza calls imagination, is primarily concerned with testimony, sense perception and the sorts of ideas that are derived from testimony and sense perception. Spinoza thinks knowledge of the first kind to be extremely defective, although he also acknowledges that imagination is essential to human life and has a pivotal role to play in making our human lives happy and powerful. The second kind of knowledge, which Spinoza calls reason, arises from and responds to those common features found in the parts and wholes of bodies and their correspondent ideas. Scientific theories, for example, would likely fall in this category as would much we know by logic. All common notions or axioms fall into the second kind of knowledge. The third kind of knowledge, which Spinoza calls the



“scientia intuitiva,” is far more mysterious. Spinoza decribes the third kind of knowledge as proceeding from “an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the essences of things,” (iip40s2). The final chapter of this book will attempt to make some sense of the third kind of knowledge. The crucial point will be that Spinoza considers this “adequate” knowledge and so I will have to consider adequacy at some length. I will also argue that the third kind of knowledge is connected with issues of individuation. There is something satisfying about using a philosopher’s own theories to evaluate basic points of his or her own doctrine. Furthermore, the two philosophers whose works Spinoza cites far and away the most, Maimonides and Descartes, both thought their theories of understanding central for understanding their works. But, as opposed to Maimonides, and in tandem with Descartes, Spinoza’s deep suspicion of language seems to preclude the Ethics being anything but the first kind of knowledge. Words are always testimonies of someone else’s mental states, of someone else’s experience, and we have “mutilated” (Spinoza’s technical term) access at best to what the words stand in for. And, as in the philosophies of both Descartes and Maimonides, it is not clear how the theory of understanding is to be applied. The resolution of these issues will be important for my argument and will rest on the centrality of the mos geometricus to Spinoza’s philosophy. In centralizing the mos geometricus in this work I am also posting a claim in the various debates over Spinoza’s philosophy. Commentators have placed differing degrees of emphasis on the importance of the mos geometricus for understanding the Ethics. At one extreme, Harry Wolfson discounts it, remarking, “there is no logical connection between the sub- stance of Spinoza’s philosophy and the form in which it is written.” 27 At the other extreme, the most dominant French Spinoza scholar of the twentieth century, Martial Gueroult, places it at center stage, as does his great suc- cessor Alexandre Matheron and some of Spinoza’s most important critics such as Hegel and critical commentators like Harold Joachim. My interpretation of Spinoza’s method will be closer to Gueroult’s and Matheron’s interpretations than Wolfson’s, although it will also be substan- tially different from their interpretations. I will claim that the most im- portant function of the mos geometricus is tied up with what Spinoza calls “emendation” in the TIE, ridding oneself of inadequate ideas so that those adequate ideas that already make up our minds can better be expressed.

27 HarryWolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfoldingthe Latent Processes of His Reasoning (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934), i:55.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

What results is not merely a formal knowledge or anatomy of our mind, but rather the discovery and augmentation of those very powers always already in the human mind and body. This discovery is a process of “becoming what you are” to use Nietzsche’s famous expression, recognizing that the being you always were was different from the myriad ways you represented yourself via the imagination. The ultimate goal of this emendation – which I have discussed in the first section of the Introduction – is succinctly expressed in the brief “Preface” to Book II:

I pass now to explaining that which must necessarily follow from God, or an eternal being, and its infinite essence. Not, indeed everything; for we have demonstrated that an infinity of infinite modes must follow from it (ip16): but that alone, which is able to lead us as if by the hand, to knowledge of the human Mind and of its highest blessedness.

The title of Spinoza’s Ethics is aptly chosen. Spinoza’s work is not just a metaphysics, although the first part of the Ethics is one of the most powerful metaphysics ever thought up by a philosopher. It is an “ethics,” by which Spinoza means an account of how one ought to act in order to attain joy and blessedness. Yet the metaphysics is not just preparatory, it is the necessary precondition of a therapy – an emendative therapy – that allows readers to see what the relevance of the metaphysics is to them and to “become what they are.” This is through proper knowledge God, of the human mind, and then its highest blessedness. I will try to show the ways in which Spinoza’s mos geometricus bears on this goal. The book is divided into seven chapters excluding this Introduction. Chapters 1 and 2 will present some of the basic concepts in Spinoza’s philosophy – nature, laws, the three kinds of knowledge, adequacy, the infinite – that are important for understanding Spinoza’s method. It will not be entirely obvious how all these concepts bear on the mos geometricus initially, but it will become clear as the book progresses. That this is the case, i.e. that apparently unrelated concepts are interconnected in often surprising ways is itself one of the hallmarks of Spinoza’s method. In chapter 3 I will discuss the key idea of emendation in Spinoza’s phi- losophy. I will argue that Spinoza believes that adequate knowledge arises from a process of emending and clarifying the confused and mutilated ideas we already have, and with them ourselves. That self-clarification and the clarification of our ideas are interconnected is obvious, but it also points to the fact that the clarification of our ideas is therapeutic in a very particular way.



The fourth and fifth chapters present some background for Spinoza’s discussion of method, both the frequently discussed early modern background – Hobbes and Descartes – and two Jewish philosophers – Maimonides and Gersonides. I argue that Spinoza’s geometrical method develops aspects of the work of all of these philosophers (as well as Bacon who is considered at length in chapter 3). As I noted above, one of the unique things about Spinoza is the diversity of contexts in which he cir- culated. The tension between these contexts and the single-minded force with which Spinoza expressed himself is one of the most exciting things to consider as an interpreter of Spinoza. The sixth chapter is the heart of the book and provides an interpretation of Spinoza’s theory of definition. I argue in this chapter that the sort of emendative therapy that Spinoza proposed in the TIE is part and parcel of the Ethics itself. Spinoza sought to move us from confused and mutilated ideas which we access through the flawed medium of language to those ideas that already make up our minds and have our bodies as their ideas. I will argue that some of the difficulties of interpreting Spinoza, of getting just at what he meant, are a necessary consequence of his method. I grant from the outset that this is an interpretation of the Ethics; there cannot be final proof in matters about which Spinoza says so little. But different sorts of evidence, both internal to the Ethics and from the TIE, the TTP, and the very important letter to Spinoza from his friend Tschirnhaus, will be brought to bear on the theory of definition. The final chapter will apply the account of method developed in prior chapters to one of the cognitive goals of Spinoza’s Ethics, forming a spe- cial sort of knowledge called the “third kind of knowledge” or “scientia intuitiva.” Spinoza, unfortunately, says little about the content of this spe- cial sort of knowledge, and what he does say is extremely confusing. I do not promise entirely to sort out the third kind of knowledge, but I will argue that understanding how and why it is the cognitive goal of the mos geometricus helps bring light to some of Spinoza’s more perplexing claims about it. In particular I will argue that the third kind of knowledge arises from knowledge we have of a very special essence, the human essence, and the way that this knowledge can augment our power and beatitude.

chapter 1

A worm in the blood: some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics

The Emmet’s Inch & Eagle’s Mile Make Lame Philosophy to smile.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

In order to understand why Spinoza embraced the geometrical method in the Ethics it necessary to reflect on the general contours of his philosophy. It is also important to have a sense of what Spinoza’s method – geometri- cal or otherwise – is trying to get at, what Spinoza is seeking to discover with it. The purpose of this chapter and the next is to set the stage for the chapters that follow, while at the same time developing a few basic questions about Spinoza’s method. The first section of this chapter pro- vides a brief sketch of Spinoza’s Ethics and introduces some of Spinoza’s key definitions and concepts. The middle sections will present a problem in Spinoza’s Ethics: “What does it mean to be a part of nature?” “Part of nature” is one of Spinoza’s most potent concepts but it needs careful in- terpretation in order not to render it inconsistent with other aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy, particularly his criticisms of anthropomorphism and teleology. 1 The final section of the chapter will consider Spinoza’s system from the “emmet’s inch” 2 or the bottom-up perspective, as opposed to the “eagle’s mile” or top-down perspective of Part I of the Ethics and the first section of this chapter. I will introduce the “bottom-up” perspective through a letter written by Spinoza to his friend Oldenburg describing a “worm” (by which Spinoza understood a small simple particle or being) floating through the bloodstream of a giant being and trying to make

1 This is an important theme throughout Spinoza’s philosophical works. Philosophers “place true happiness solely in virtue and peace of mind, and they strive to conform with nature, not to make nature conform with them; for they are assured that God directs Nature in accordance with the requirements of her universal laws, and not in accordance with the requirements of the particular laws of human nature” (TTP VI, Samuel Shirley (trans.), Theological-Political Treatise [Leiden:

E. J. Brill, 1991], 78).

2 “Emmet” is an eighteenth-century word for ant.


Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics


sense of the vast circulatory maze it finds itself within. Finally I will con- sider the problem of combining these two perspectives with an allusion to Wilfred Sellars’ distinction between the manifest image and the scientific image.

an outline of spinoza’s ethics

Spinoza divided the Ethics into five parts. 3 Part I presents Spinoza’s metaphysics. Spinoza populated his metaphysics with three basic sorts of entities – substance, attributes, and modes. A worm, for example, is a mode or a collection of modes. Ideas are also modes. Thus the idea of a worm, as well as any and all ideas worms might have, are modes. Thought as opposed to a thought or a group of thoughts, is an attribute. God is the only sub- stance. These entities – substance, attributes, and modes – are referred to over and over again in the Ethics. Spinoza considers them to be exhaustive of what there is – anything and everything belongs to one of these three categories. A central question the Ethics investigates is: what are the conse- quences of holding these three entities as basic for one’s understanding of self and world? Here are Spinoza’s definitions of each:

definition 3: By substance I understand what is in itself and conceived through itself, i.e., that the concept of which does not require the concept of another thing from which it must be formed. definition 4: By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a sub- stance as constituting its essence. definition 5: By mode I understand the affections of substance, or that which is in another, through which it is also conceived.

What can we tell about the three definitions on a quick examination? It is clear that substance is fundamentally different from attributes or modes insofar as substance is what it is independent of modes and attributes, while modes and attributes both presuppose substance. What it means to be a mode is to be an affection of a substance, and an attribute is “what the intellect perceives of substance, as constituting its essence.” Consequently substance has pride of place among the basic entities in Spinoza’s ontology. These definitions also point toward another of Spinoza’s basic dis- tinctions, a metaphysical distinction between natura naturans and natura

3 It appears that at a relatively early stage of its composition the Ethics was divided into three parts and what eventually became Ethics III–V was all one large section. The five-part structure of the Ethics appears to have evolved as the work was written. See Letter XXVIII.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

naturata. 4 The Latin expression Natura naturans means “naturing nature” or “nature insofar as it natures.” Spinoza understood this to denote na- ture considered as fully actual and causal (ip29s). Natura naturata literally means “natured nature” or “nature insofar as it is natured.” All modes are natura naturata since they are not free causes – causes arising only from their own essences or natures (id7) – but rather they are what they are in and through another. They are natured, they derive some of their essence or nature from another. Thus there is a kind of divide in Spinoza’s metaphysics with substance and attributes, natura naturans, on one side, and modes or natura naturata, on the other. When taken all together they are the whole of nature. There is no reference to “cause” in Spinoza’s definitions of substance, modes, and attributes. In fact one of the main purposes of Book I is to develop an account of causation. I consider this theory of causation – which links divine causation, modal causation, and the causal individuation of modes (to be discussed at greater length in later chapters) – to be the buttress of Spinoza’s metaphysics. But, even if the distinction is not really implicit in the initial definitions of substance, attribute, and mode, it is important to keep in mind that, from the three basic entities in his philosophy, and a fairly general and abstract notion of cause (id1, ip16), Spinoza developed this important metaphysical division. Spinoza did not invent the terms substance, attributes, and modes. From Aristotle to Descartes many or even most mainstream philosophers were interested in understanding substances, attributes, and modes, and conse- quently there was some sort of shared tradition in how the concepts were discussed. This is not to imply that Spinoza just took over traditional terms. Rather, over the course of the Ethics Spinoza invests each of these defini- tions with his own particular sense. For Spinoza there is only one substance, in contrast to Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, and most Aristotelians. This one substance has infinite attributes. Spinoza’s attributes are not the sorts of attributes that many medieval philosophers predicated of God, like om- nipotence or omniscience, but rather thought and extension. Finally, each attribute has an infinity of modes that necessarily follow from the divine essence. 5

4 These terms are traditionally left untranslated. When Spinoza introduces them at ip29s he implies that they are technical terms that most of his readers would know.

5 In The Philosophyof Spinoza Harry Wolfson emphasizes that the definition of substance is traditional but the definition of mode is a break with the Aristotelian idea of accident (cf., Harry Wolfson, The Philosophyof Spinoza 2 vols. [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934] i, ch. 3). I will argue that the definition of mode is sufficiently vague that it is not at all clear, on an initial reading, whether it is a Scotistic mode or an Aristotelian accident. As the Ethics unfolds it becomes clear that Spinoza’s modes are very different from Aristotelian accidents.

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 23

All three of Spinoza’s definitions are quite controversial. Spinoza’s def- inition of substance has been widely criticized, most famously by Hegel. 6 Generally these criticisms are directed less at the definition itself than at the perceived consequences of the definition, i.e., that it commits Spinoza to only one substance that is God or nature, and the denial of the independent reality of individuals. There are many problems with Spinoza’s derivation of this one substance, but these problems seem less to be a direct consequence of the definition as stated by Spinoza, and more to arise from the ways in which Spinoza argues from the definition. Spinoza’s definition of attribute as “what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence” is also extremely general. The most notable feature of the definition is Spinoza’s emphasis on “intellect,” that there seems to be some epistemic aspect to the attributes. There is much ambiguity as to what sort of intellect we are talking about (human or divine), and whether the attribute is to be understood as a subjective perception of a substance (what one thinks of substance) or as an objective set of facts about substance perceived by an intellect. 7 This is further exacerbated by Spinoza’s tendency to use both “perceive” and “essence” differently in different contexts. And there are further points of contention. One controversy concerns just how many attributes there are. I will discuss this in passing in the next chapter. Another controversy – closely connected to the question of whether the attributes are subjective or objective – concerns the differences between substance and attributes. If an attribute is what an intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence, and if attributes are objective in some sense (which there are many reasons to believe they are), then what is the difference between attribute and substance? This is a notoriously difficult problem. Spinoza’s definition of mode is perhaps most intriguing of all. The defi- nition is neutral as to what sort of content a given mode has. This neutrality is a consequence of the generality of Spinoza’s definition. Take, for example, my goldfish Charlie. The idea of Charlie, Charlie’s body, and Charlie him- self are all modes, even though each mode has a very different content. The idea of Charlie is a mode of thought (it is conceived in and through some- thing else, the attribute of thought), Charlie’s body is a mode of extension

6 See particularly G. W. F. Hegel, Wissenschaft der Logik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1986 ), i . 3 . 3c ( i : 456 7 ), ii . 3 . 1c ( ii : 195 200 ), in English, A. V. Miller (trans.), Hegel’s Science of Logic (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1969) 3823, 53640. For a thorough defense of Spinoza see Pierre Macherey, Hegel ou Spinoza (Paris: Editions la Decouverte,´ 1990), ch. 1.

7 The consensus is that Spinoza meant attributes to be objective. But see Charles Jarrett, “Some Remarks on the ‘Objective’ and ‘Subjective’ Interpretations of the Attributes,” Inquiry, 20 (Winter 1977), 44756.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

(it is conceived through the attribute of extension), and Charlie himself is a mode expressing itself both as thought (Charlie’s mental states or thoughts) and extension (Charlie’s body, Charlie’s swimming, etc.). Furthermore, Charlie is both a mode and composed of many modes. This brings up an obvious question: are the mind and the body of a given thing the same mode (Charlie) now considered as an extended mode (Charlie’s body), and now as a thinking mode (Charlie’s mind) or are they two different modes? Substance, attributes, and modes, despite the many controversies con- cerning how precisely to understand them, are the basic categories of Spinoza’s metaphysics, and by extension Spinoza’s account of nature and the world. There are two further definitions from Part I of the Ethics that are important for understanding Spinoza’s basic metaphysical commitments:

definition 1: By causa sui I understand that, the essence of which involves existence, or that, the nature of which is not able to be conceived, except as existing. definition 6: By God I understand an absolutely infinite being, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, [all of] which express the same eternal and infinite essence.

The definition of causa sui, or “cause of itself,” is only rarely invoked in the Ethics, but its prominent place as “Definition 1” signals its importance. It is a somewhat peculiar definition as it equates a causal concept – cause of itself – with two ontological claims. What seems important about causa sui is that it implies that the primum ens in Spinoza’s universe, that being whose essence involves existence and who cannot be conceived except as existing, is caused. Of course it is caused by itself, but the implication is that causation and reason extend to all beings. In principle there is nothing beyond cause and nothing beyond reason. This has many striking and heterodox consequences. Ultimately, Spinoza equated causa sui with God. Although the defini- tion of causa sui is first among Spinoza’s definitions, the definition of God is the cardinal and crucial definition of the Ethics. For Spinoza, the def- inition of God does not supplant the definition of substance. Rather, in Ethics I Spinoza argues that God is the one substance from which infinite attributes and an infinite infinity of modes arise and which are under- stood and comprehended, insofar as they are capable of being understood and comprehended, in and through God. I will have much to say about Spinoza’s definition of God in what follows. The metaphysics that Spinoza presents in Ethics I is derived not just from definitions but also from seven axioms or common notions. Spinoza

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 25

presents these axioms as if they are philosophical commitments that anyone and everyone might hold. But, like the definitions, they are highly equiv- ocal. It is really only over the course of reading the Ethics that the reader begins to understand them. 8 They are all very important but there are two that demand particular consideration for my purposes:

axiom 3: Out of a given determinate cause an effect necessarily follows, and conversely, if no determinate cause has been given it is impossible that an effect will follow. axiom 4: Understanding an effect depends on and involves understanding the cause.

Both of these axioms concern causes. Axiom 4 is a strong claim, one might imagine the following far weaker version that “Understanding an effect depends on and involves the cause.” In this variant one need not understand

the cause, it is just the case that when one understands an effect this depends in some way on the cause of that effect. For example, the variant could just assert that if it were not for the cause there would be no effect to understand at all, hence to understand an effect there must be a cause. Spinoza’s real axiom is far stronger, understanding the effect depends on understanding the cause. This has an obvious but important consequence for the Ethics . We need to first understand causes (not just recognize them) in order to under- stand effects. Consequently, a proper philosophy needs to be structured in accordance with this axiom; we need to build our philosophy in such

a way as to understand causes. There is still the problem of how we ac-

cess these causes, but our need to access them and understand them is clear. Axiom 3 states that an effect will follow when there is a determinate cause, and, conversely, if there is no determinate cause it is impossible that an effect will follow. It is not clear exactly what Spinoza meant by “determinate,” but the axiom has the following powerful consequence. If there is no determinate cause as to why something does not exist, God for example, then it is impossible for that thing not to exist, and consequently

it necessarily must exist. This functions as a kind of principle of sufficient

reason in some of Spinoza’s most important propositions. Taken together with 1a4 and the definition of causa sui they support a fully causal and fully rational world where everything has a cause, all causes entail reasons, and,

8 Margaret Wilson, “Spinoza’s Causal Axiom (Ethics I, Axiom 4),” in Y. Yovel, ed., God and Nature:


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

consequently, to be is to have a cause and a reason. This identification of causation and existence, which I noted in the discussion of causa sui, is a central feature of Spinoza’s metaphysics. In the latter half of Ethics I (ip1633) Spinoza works out some very dra- matic consequences that these considerations have for metaphysics. One notorious consequence is determinism – “that every event is causally de- termined from antecedent conditions by the laws of nature.” Spinoza also seems to be committed to some sort of “necessitarianism,” either to the

strong claim that “every actual state of affairs is logically or metaphysically necessary, so that the world could not have been in any way different than

it is” or to something a bit weaker that does not require that all finite states

are necessitated in all ways. 9 Over the course of Part I of the Ethics, Spinoza

argues for an infinite and necessary world where all things arise from one fully rational God through which all things are what they are. I will discuss

a number of the propositions of Ethics I in the following chapters at some

length. I would like to briefly sketch the remainder of the Ethics to provide a general sense of its overall structure. Part II of the Ethics, “Of the Nature and

Origin of the Mind,” offers the consequences for minds (infinite and finite) of Spinoza’s account of God. Spinoza argues that thought and extension – both of which are substances for Descartes 10 – are each separate attributes expressing the eternal and infinite essence of God. Thus, Spinoza takes the heterodox step of identifying both the mental and physical with the divine attributes. Once Spinoza establishes this, he develops a number of surprising theses about the mind, including his notorious claim that the will is just a mode of the mind and thus that the will is as necessitated and as necessary as any other mode (iip48, iip49c). He also argues that thought and extension exhibit the same “order and connection” (iip7), that the mind understands itself and all else through the body, and that the mind

is literally the idea of the body (iip1113).

There are a number of definitions in Book II that will be important in later chapters. But, since I have been using “essence” willy-nilly, it seems particularly important to present this definition at the outset. Actually,

9 Don Garrett, “Spinoza’s Necessitarianism,” in Y. Yovel, ed., God and Nature: Spinoza’s Metaphysics , (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991), 1912. Garrett provides a highly convincing argument that Spinoza is a rather strong necessitarian. But see Edwin Curley and Charles Huennemann, “Spinoza’s Necessi- tarianism Reconsidered,” in Rocco J. Gennaro and Charles Huenemann (eds.), New Essays on the Rationalists (Oxford University Press, 1999), 24162. 10 Principles of Philosophy, i.523.

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics


strictly speaking, Spinoza does not define essence as such, but rather “belongs to an essence”:

Iid2: To the essence of something belongs that which when given, the thing is necessarily put forward, and which when removed the thing is necessarily taken away; or that, without which the thing can neither be nor be conceived, and vice-versa.

Curley (CW 447n1) points out that this a more restrictive definition of essence than the Cartesian definition of essence Spinoza offers in the Princi-

ples (the clause “that which when given, the thing is necessarily put forward” prevents God from necessarily belonging to the essence of each individual (iip10cs)). The definition of essence is a touchstone throughout the Ethics connected with Spinoza’s theory of definition, and thus relevant to his thinking about method. Parts I and II of the Ethics form a unit for reasons I will discuss in

a later chapter. Parts III, IV, and V also form a unit – although Part V provides a kind of syncretic conclusion to the entire book and is in this way different from any of the chapters that come before it. I will discuss why and how this is the case in the concluding chapter of this book, but, for the moment, “On the Origin and Nature of the Affects” (III) presents

a theory of the affections and the passions grounded on the metaphysics

presented in the first two parts of the Ethics. Spinoza’s theory of the passions

is extremely interesting, and built on one of his most fundamental concepts,

the conatus. The conatus is a sort of metaphysical principle of inertia, the drive each individual has to persist in its existence: a human to persevere as

a human, a rock to persevere as a rock, and so on. Spinoza uses the conatus

to develop a theory of the passions and an account of the ways in which human beings persevere in their existence. In defining the passions in this way, Spinoza is developing some suggestions derived from Hobbes’ and Descartes’ theories of the passions. Theories of the passions were central to the projects of many of the best-known philosophers of the eighteenth century (Descartes, Hobbes, Malebranche, Gassendi) as they provided a means to explain the ways in which the body affected the mind. The ways these philosophers defined the passions, and what precisely they meant by the body affecting the mind were quite diverse. But there is a general sense that a mechanistic physiology would provide a wedge into a rich variety of ethical phenomena. Spinoza diverges from all of the above philosophers in (1) denying that the passions were ways in which the body disturbed the mind and (2) considering the


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

mental and the bodily as autonomous. Descartes and Malebranche accept (2) but not (1), Hobbes and Gassendi (1) but not (2). The conatus was, for Spinoza, the concept that anchored (1) and (2), as the tendency to persevere in existence holds of all modes, mental, physical, or both, yet it does not imply that mental is reducible to the physical. There has been a tendency when considering Spinoza’s philosophy to view Parts III and IV as interesting but ancillary to the meat of Spinoza’s arguments. I think this is because when teaching philosophy there is a tendency to make major divisions between moral philosophy, philosophy of mind or epistemology, and metaphysics. Part I of Spinoza’s Ethics is clearly a metaphysic. Part II is, at least in part, a philosophy of mind and theory of knowledge. In Part II Spinoza analyzes and compares different sorts of knowledge and cognition as well as issues surrounding the relation (or lack of relation) between mind and body. In addition he develops a theory of truth and adequacy. Much of what he has to say about issues in metaphysics, the philosophy of mind, and the theory of knowledge is relevant to current philosophical practice. The case is somewhat different with moral theory. Although there has been a real resurgence of interest in the emotions and the passions among moral philosophers and philosophers of psychology, and an attendant resur- gence in interest in Spinoza, most issues in moral philosophy are still dictated by a few philosophers writing before Spinoza – Aristotle and Plato – or after – Kant, Mill, Bentham, and Hume. Spinoza’s concerns overlap with all of these philosophers on particular issues. But his way of doing moral philosophy built on a theory of the passions, although akin to Hume, is still foreign to the ways in which most contemporary moral philosophers do moral philosophy. 11 Part IV of the Ethics, “On Human Bondage, or the Powers of the Affects,” describes the ways in which we are limited and buffeted by our passions such that they diminish our power. But Spinoza also concurrently develops his concept of a “free man,” a person who, despite the power of his (or her) passions, manages to be as little impacted by contingent circumstances as possible and to be happy, powerful, and free. The discussion of the “free man” includes some of the most powerful passages in the Ethics including two of Spinoza’s best-known maxims: that the free man thinks least of all about death (ivp67) and that if men were born free they would have no ideas of good and evil (ivp68).

11 There is a notable list of counter examples, Annette Baier, Martha Nussbaum, and Amelie´ being some of the best known.


Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 29

Part V, “On the Power of the Intellect or Human Freedom,” is the culmination of the propositions in Parts III and IV of the Ethics and the Ethics as a whole. In the final sections of Part V of the Ethics, Spinoza once again adopts the austere metaphysical lens of Part I of the Ethics to develop two crucial concepts. First, he argues that there is a part of the human mind that is eternal. These arguments provide a stepping-stone toward a second claim – that we can know through what Spinoza calls the third kind of knowledge or the “scientia intuitiva.” This knowledge is “sub specie aeternitatis” or “beneath a species of eternity” and Spinoza claims that from the third sort of knowledge arises an intellectual love of God in and through which we are the very love by which God loves itself. These aspects of Part V, in tandem with Part I, gave rise to Goethe’s “god- drunken” Spinoza, as well as the interpretations of Coleridge and a host of other admirers who wished to view Spinoza’s highest sort of knowledge as an intuitive understanding of the deep unity of nature. This is at odds with the more “naturalistic” picture of Spinoza’s philosophy emphasized by many recent Anglo-American interpreters.

a part of nature

One of Spinoza’s most celebrated claims is that we – human beings – are a “part of nature.” By describing human beings as a “part of nature” Spinoza meant above all that man should be explained through the laws of nature that hold of all natural beings. This is the cardinal thesis of Spinoza’s natu- ralism. Undergirding all “parts of nature” – humans, lumpfish, telephones, and neutrinos – are metaphysical and physical laws which relate the “parts of nature” back to a cause that explains what they are. The laws of nature are not only physical laws, although physical laws are clearly part of what Spinoza meant by laws of nature. Since the attribute of thought expresses the essence of substance, and yet is fully independent of the attribute of extension, it, too, seems to have laws. Since the attribute of thought is part of natura naturans – “naturing nature” – its laws are also laws of nature. Spinoza presents the basic tenets of his naturalism eloquently in the “Preface” to Ethics III:

There is nothing that happens in nature which can be attributed to a vice; for nature is always the same, and its virtue and power of acting are everywhere one and the same, i.e., the laws of nature, and rules, according to which all things are made, and are changed out of one form and into another, are everywhere, and always, the same, and so also the nature of things must be understood by one and the same reason, namely through universal laws and rules of nature.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

The laws of nature are uniform and universal and hold of all of nature. As there is nothing outside of nature, all beings must be understood through these laws of nature. Supernatural explanations as well as explanations that depend on a transcendent realm can be ruled out. They lack a referent since there is nothing above or beyond nature. Spinoza’s denial of any realm external to nature and any human laws operating in opposition to the laws that guide all natural beings is expressed succinctly in a well-known passage (also from the “Preface” to Part III of the Ethics) criticizing philosophers who elevate man as beyond nature:

Rather they seem to conceive man in nature as an imperium 12 within an imperium. For they believe man more disturbs, than follows, the order of nature, and that he has absolute power over his actions, and he is determined from nowhere and by nothing other than himself.

This claim (and Spinoza’s naturalism more generally) is both deflationary and explanatory. Jonathan Bennett states the deflationary side of Spinoza’s naturalism well: “His thinking is firmly grounded in the conviction that there is nothing fundamentally special about mankind as compared with chimpanzees and earthworms and cabbages and rivers; for Spinoza, man is just a part of Nature.” 13 Humans have no supernatural powers, like self- determination, that place them in a different imperium from chimps and cabbages, and if they claim they do, they could be up to some dangerous nonsense. 14 But Spinoza also understands the fact that human beings are parts of nature as a thesis about explanation. If I am capable of discovering general laws that hold of all natural beings then nothing is in principle beyond explanation. Bennett refers to this, aptly, as Spinoza’s “explanatory rationalism” – everything has a cause, every cause provides a reason, and consequently everything is rationally explicable. 15 This general naturalistic framework is clearly one motivation for Spinoza’s geometrical method in the Ethics. In fact, the paragraph I have just quoted is offered by Spinoza as an explanation for why he employs the geometrical method in explaining “human vices and ineptitudes.” He concludes the “Preface” to Part III with his strongest characterization of the geometrical method as deflationary and explanatory naturalism. Spinoza

12 Curley translates imperium as “dominion.” “Imperium” is a key term in Spinoza’s political philosophy, translating as “dominion,” “empire,” and “command.” But these words are only able to hint at the rich uses Spinoza makes of it. As with conatus, I will leave imperium untranslated.

13 Jonathan Bennett, A Studyof Spinoza’s Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984), 36.

14 They could use their supposed special access to the laws of the human imperium to add legitimacy to their political authority.

15 Bennett, A Study, 29.

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 31

remarks that in Part III he will consider the nature and force of the affects as

if they were questions concerning “lines, planes, and bodies” just as he had

considered God in Part I and Mind in Part II. Thus, due to the uniformity and universality of the geometrical method, we can show that human follies and absurdities are no more or less explicable than anything else in nature. They are explicable in precisely the same way as anything else is, through necessary reasons. So, Spinoza assumes that there are general laws of nature and that these laws have great explanatory power. He assumes that we are parts of nature. There has been a tendency in reading Spinoza to consider this dictum to imply that we are all parts that interlock in a vast whole or community of nature. I will argue that to be a part of nature means something different than being a part of a whole in this sense. In other words, if we examine what it could possibly mean for Spinoza to be a part, we see that it cannot mean anything so teleological. There is a general strategy in all of Spinoza’s major works, but particularly the Ethics and the TTP, of taking over loosely defined terminology, like “part,” and using it in a determinate way which is sometimes at odds with the colloquial sense of a term. I will argue in subsequent chapters that this strategy is important for how Spinoza understands method. So what does “part” mean? By extension, what is the relation between nature and the individual and how and what can the individual know of nature? Spinoza’s answer is one of the most thoroughly naturalistic, in the above sense, that has ever been put to paper.

parts in the whole of nature

1665 was not a happy year for Amsterdam or London, and it was a low

point in relations between Holland and England. The Anglo-Dutch war flared for a second time, eventually to be settled by the Peace of Breda.

A devastating plague first struck Holland, and then moved on to London

in late 1664, the plague remembered and immortalized more than fifty

years later in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. In 1666 the Great Fire of London followed the plague. Comets and portents were sighted all over Christendom. Millenarians and religious enthusiasts awaited the end of the world in the year 1666, as “prophesied” in the Book of Revelations. Sects, ranging from large groups such as the followers of the self-proclaimed Messiah Sabbatai Sevi to small collections of radicals, proclaimed the end

of the world, salvation for the blessed, and punishment of the wicked; and

the signs, the plagues and violence, seemed to confirm it everywhere.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

The Thirty Years War, life before the Peace of Westphalia, and the reli- gious anarchy of Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century were all within the reach of memory. The English CivilWar had recently concluded, and the failure of the revolution would lead to another political rapproche- ment between the Dutch and the English: the Glorious Revolution and the ascent of the House of Orange. At the end of the previous century the reli- gious discord had led the great Dutch neo-Stoic Justus Lipsius to write De Constantia presenting a Christianized path of removal from the chaotic and heaving world of sectarian violence. 16 But, even by the rather high standards of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, 1665 was a remarkable year. If not as violent as many years in the preceding century, 1665 looked back toward grim religious and national violence, to present plagues and to the near future as many tongues proclaimed the millennium. In such times an ordinary, powerless man or woman might feel like a mere worm or particle, caught in machinations far beyond their control. Henry Oldenburg, Spinoza’s most prolific correspondent, the secretary of the famed Royal Society, and a central figure in the organization and proliferation of early modern science had a bad time of it. In late 1666 he was thrown into prison on suspicion of being a Dutch spy, and briefly condemned to the Tower of London. After 1666 Spinoza and Oldenburg did not correspond again for ten years. Perhaps this was due to Olden- burg’s perception that friendship with Spinoza – who was already gaining a reputation for impiety – was dangerous, particularly given Oldenburg’s own contingent situation. Perhaps it was aggravated by Oldenburg’s hor- ror at Spinoza’s criticisms of revealed religion in the Tractatus Theologico- Politicus. 17 Whatever the reason the end of this correspondence must have been a great loss to Spinoza, as Oldenburg was one of his main con- duits (along with Johannes Hudde and Huygens) into the scientific world. Through Oldenburg, Spinoza communicated with Robert Boyle, heard word of other luminaries in the burgeoning days of the Royal Society, and participated in the “Republic of Letters.”

16 Stoicism is a good philosophy for bad times. What the times were like is evident from Lipsius:

“who is of so hard and flinty a heart that he can ani longer endure these evils? wee are tossed, as you see, these manie yeares with the tempest of civill warres: and like Sea-faring men are wee beaten with sundrie blasts of troubles and sedition. If I love quietness and rest, the Trumpets and ratling of armour interrupt mee. If I take solace in my countrey gardens and farmes, the souldiers and murtherers force mee into the Towne,” Two Bookes Of Constancie Written in Latine byIustus Lipsius, ed. R. Kirk and C. M. Hall (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers, 1939), 72 (critical reprint of Sir John Stradling’s translation of 1594, De Constantia originally published in Latin


17 Although Oldenburg would write that he had qualified his negative judgments somewhat when he resumed correspondence with Spinoza in 1675 (Letter LXI).

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 33

The seven letters exchanged in 1665 are significant documents for under- standing Spinoza’s philosophy. Although today letters might seem periph- eral to a philosopher’s central doctrines, early modern letters were widely disseminated. They were an integral part of a philosopher’s corpus; a testing ground for theories as criticisms flowed in from other scientists and philoso- phers. They also allowed intellectuals to forge personae in the “Republic of Letters.” This particular correspondence allows us quickly to glimpse some of the issues that underlie Spinoza’s complex corpus as he attempted to explain his philosophy to Oldenburg during what was one of Spinoza’s greatest periods of intellectual ferment. They give us a brief and vivid sketch of some central problems in Spinoza’s philosophy through which we can clarify a few key philosophical issues in the Ethics. Spinoza invested a great deal of thought in his correspondence. He was doubtless excited to communicate his philosophy to an open-minded and intellectually capable listener, as his letters to Oldenburg began amid his ex- tended and taxing exchanges with the maddening Dutch Calvinist William van Blijenburgh. 18 Spinoza could only take so much of Blijenburgh’s ques- tions and brought the correspondence to an end in June of 1665. Olden- burg’s letter, coming after “a space of so many months,” and word of the continuing interest of the great Boyle in Spinoza, must have been a gust of fresh air from more liberal and congenial thinkers abroad. Oldenburg (and by proxy Boyle, who had discussed Spinoza’s letters with Oldenburg) asked Spinoza the following: “We warmly beseech you to communicate it to us, if you see any light on the most difficult investigation, which turns on the question of our knowing how each part of nature agrees with the whole, and in what way it coheres with the rest” (Letter XXXI). 19 This question arose in response to Spinoza’s claim, in the previous letter that “men, like the rest, are only a part of nature, and that I do not know how each part of nature agrees with the whole, and how it coheres with the

18 Curley has speculated that Blijenburgh’s inability to understand Spinoza’s arguments made Spinoza realize time was not yet ripe for the Ethics (CW 350). Subsequent to the end of their correspondence, Blijenburgh wrote polemics against Spinoza. Spinoza owned a copy of Blijenburgh’s polemic De waerheyt van der christelijcke godts-dienst etc. of een Wederlegginge van dat Godt-lasterlijcke Boeck, genoemt Tractatus Theologico Politicus etc. (Leiden: D. V. Gaesbeeck, 1674 ). See Catalogus , 16 .

19 There are affinities between my emphasis on wholes and parts, Letter XXXII, laws and causes, and the role of the infinite intellect in two essays: Wolfgang Bartuschat, “The Infinite Intellect and Human Knowledge,” in Yirmiyahu Yovel and Gideon Segal (eds.), Spinoza on Knowledge and the Human Mind (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1994), 187208; and Richard Mason, “Spinoza on the Causality of Individuals,” Journal of the Historyof Philosophy, 24 (1986), 197210. What I make of these concepts is quite different from Bartuschat’s interpretation that emphasizes the centrality of the finite human intellect (although I will also centralize the human intellect in a different way in the following chapters). My interpretation is closer to Mason who emphasizes the fictive character of parts (210) and the distinction between finite and infinite.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

rest,” (Letter XXX). 20 Spinoza must have been flattered by interest from such important figures in the Royal Society and the European Republic of Letters – although this did not stop him from criticizing Boyle and Bacon. 21 Spinoza immediately ruled out two answers that might be thought promising – “I should like first to warn you that I do not attribute to Nature beauty or ugliness, order or confusion. For things cannot, except with respect to our imagination, be called beautiful or ugly, ordered or con- fused.” We might argue for a hierarchy in nature from more ugly and less beautiful to more beautiful and less ugly allowing us to view all of nature as fitting into a beautiful whole. This was the line pursued in the more aesthetic eighteenth-century variants on the argument from design such as Lord Shaftesbury’s Characteristicks and George Berkeley’s Alciphron. Or, we might view all of the parts of nature as either ordered or confused (as was assumed by countless philosophers both before and after Spinoza) and thereby infer that the parts fit into an ordered whole. 22 Both assumptions project anthropomorphic prejudices onto nature and assume that the whole of nature has features much like those we access through our imaginations. Spinoza rejected all forms of anthropomor- phism and teleology when applied to nature as a whole. 23 Furthermore, he

20 For the entire letter to Boyle, see A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall (eds. and trans.), The Correspondence of HenryOldenburg (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1966), 5578 (Letter 430). There is further information in a letter to Sir Robert Moray in ibid., 54950 (Letter 427).

21 Boyle apparently never saw Spinoza’s response to his question. Oldenburg wrote to Boyle: “I had lately another letter from Sigr Spinosa, who is very much yr servant, and who entertains me wth a discourse of his, concerning ye agreement and coherence of ye parts in ye World wth the Whole; wch is not unphilosophicall, in my opinion, though it would perhaps be tedious to you, to have a letter filled wth it; and this makes me forbeare to send it to you,” ibid., 615 (Letter 457). Boyle was horrified by the Ethics and the TTP, and the Boyle lectures were partially instituted to fight against Spinozism. Some of the differences between Boyle and Spinoza on parts and wholes can already be seen in Letter VI from 1662, where Spinoza criticizes Boyle’s experiments on the reconstitution of nitre. For a compelling presentation of the disagreements in this correspondence see A. Rupert Hall and Marie Boas Hall, “Philosophy and Natural Philosophy: Boyle and Spinoza,” in M´elanges

Alexandre Koyr´e (Paris: Hermann, 1964), ii:24156.

22 Oldenburg did not understand Spinoza’s rejection of “order” (and how could he, without the Ethics or the TIE ). He noted in his response to Spinoza’s letter: “Your philosophic reflections on the agreement and connection of the parts of Nature with the whole give me much pleasure, although I do not follow sufficiently how we can exclude order and symmetry from Nature, as you seem to do; especially as you yourself admit that all its bodies are surrounded by others, and are mutually determined in a definite and constant manner both as to their existence and their action, while the same proportion of motion to rest is itself the sufficient ground of a true order,” Letter XXXII. Spinoza’s reply is missing.

23 Almost all Anglo-American interpreters of Spinoza agree that Spinoza argues against anthropomor- phism. How resolutely anti-teleological Spinoza was, and what teleology meant for Spinoza, are matters of dispute. Jonathan Bennett has argued that Spinoza is thoroughly, in some cases misguid- edly, anti-teleological (Bennett, A Studyof Spinoza’s Ethics, 21330). Edwin Curley has disputed

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 35

considered the idea of “perfection” as particularly suspicious (IV “Preface”), and, since “beauty” and “order” often draw on some notion of perfection, they should also be rejected. But what are we then left with? If we reject order and disorder or beauty and ugliness as poor character- izations of Nature, then it is not so clear how we can speak of parts and whole of nature much the less of the agreement of parts of nature. Here is Spinoza’s explanation:

By agreement of the parts, then, I mean nothing other than how the laws, or nature, of one part adapt themselves to the laws, or nature, of another part so as to cause the least opposition. Concerning whole and parts, I consider things so far as they are parts of some whole, insofar as their natures mutually accommodate themselves as much as possible; but insofar as things differ among themselves, each produces an idea in our mind, which is distinct from the others, and is therefore considered to be a whole, not a part. (Letter XXXII)

We can still talk about parts and wholes but in terms of laws or “natures” which may differ from region to region. To know about parts and wholes is to know about these laws and how they adapt from one region to another.

laws and infinite modes

In the TTP 24 Spinoza defined law in its “absolute sense” as “that according to which each individual acts, [the individuals] taken all together or as belonging to some species, according to one and the same certain and determinate reason” (TTP IV, iii/43). From this, Spinoza delineated two different senses of “law”: laws that depend on human wills and laws that depend on “Nature’s necessity” (TTP IV, iii/43).

Bennett’s claim as being too strong (Edwin Curley, “On Bennett’s Spinoza: The Issue of Teleology,” in Edwin Curley and Pierre-Franc¸ois Moreau [eds.], Spinoza: Issues and Directions [Leiden: Brill, 1990], 3952), as has Don Garrett (Don Garrett, “Teleology in Spinoza and Early Modern Ratio- nalism,” in Rocco Gennaro and Charles Huenemann [eds.], New Essays on the Rationalists [Oxford University Press, 1999], 31035). It seems clear that Spinoza writes on numerous occasions in a way that accepts teleological descriptions of human actions. It also seems fairly clear that, if human beings are a part of nature and determined by the laws of nature, this determination cannot be teleological (as it would imply that nature is teleological. I will discuss this issue at length below as well as in succeeding chapters.

24 Because TTP was being written at the same time as, or after, the letters to Oldenburg, as well as after major portions of the Ethics, I think it is quite reasonable to use the TTP to illuminate Spinoza’s ways of thinking about laws (I think, in fact, it is not used enough), and vice versa. I can see no major discrepancies between the TTP and the Ethics, other than that Spinoza is far more guarded in the TTP. But, as the TTP presents some of Spinoza’s central concepts to a broad audience, it can be an enormous aid to understanding the Ethics. It seems to me strangely underutilized in the Anglo-American Spinoza literature and I will, accordingly, make heavy use of it. See Edwin Curley, “Notes on a Neglected Masterpiece (I): Spinoza and the Science of Hermeneutics,” in Graeme Hunter (ed.), Spinoza: The Enduring Questions (University of Toronto Press, 1994).


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

Both senses of law assume “acting,” which Spinoza defined at Ethics iiid2 as: “when something is done, in us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause, that is (by d1) when something in us or outside us follows from our nature, which is able to be understood clearly and distinctly through it alone.” The basic point of the definition is quite clear, that we can only be said to be the cause of something when it arises from us and can be understood through us. Of course this is not easy to cash out. What does it mean to follow from our nature? Is God the only adequate cause and all adequate causes consequently refer back to the divine nature? There are also problems individuating acts. If I pull a trigger on a gun and the gun shoots, this appears to be my act in any ordinary usage of “act.” But does the bullet follow from my nature? Does anything follow from my nature in such a manner that I could properly be said to act? And there are parallel problems, so to speak, as to whether or not an act arises from my thoughts or my body. The individuation of beings and acts is central to Spinoza’s discussions of part and whole, law, and (as I will show later) the third kind of knowledge. I will touch on this issue only tangentially at the moment, but it is important to see that individuation bears on how we understand laws. The TTP definition of law – “that according to which each individual acts, [the individuals] taken all together or as belonging to some species, according to one and the same certain and determinate reason” – is strikingly similar to Spinoza’s definition of “singular thing”:

If more Individuals than one so concur in one action, that they are all simultane- ously causes of one effect, I consider them to that extent all the same and as one singular thing. (Iid7)

The two definitions seem to present two perspectives on the same thing:

the acting individual. When an acting individual is evaluated qua laws they are evaluated qua the necessary conditions for their agency, as an individual acting from determinate reasons and principals. The definition of “singular thing” explains what individuates the acting being or group of beings: being a cause of one effect. 25 Iid7 is likely derived from the idea in Hobbes, best exemplified by the Leviathan itself, i.e., that being the cause of an effect results in the unity of an apparently diverse group of singular things. For example if I cede from

25 Of course, expressions like “law-guidedness” and “governed” imply a law that acts upon, organizes, gives causal force, normativity, or necessity to something external to it. Spinoza is rejecting this, but unfortunately the way we talk about law seems to have externality built into it. I will try to avoid these idioms as much as possible, but sometimes they are unavoidable.

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 37

the Leviathan and am in a state of war with it, this is a combat between two singular things, one quite small and one terrifyingly big. Hobbes maintains

a difference between artificial and natural beings (for example me and the

Leviathan) although he views them both as singular things. An important and interesting fact about Spinoza is that he makes no such distinction. For Spinoza, the Leviathan and I are equally singular things if we are

the causes of one effect. A car phone and a molecule of water are both singular things insofar as each of them unites in a cause. The difference between the car phone and a molecule of water is explanatory, a car phone arises from human practices and through human natures, a molecule of water does not. But they are both singular things, and both modes. I will return to this issue in a few paragraphs once I have introduced infinite modes. What are examples, then, of laws? In the case of human laws the answer

is obvious, laws are products of human wills that compel or direct human

beings to act in a certain and determinate way: “No jaywalking.” This picture of laws as arising from wills was a normal one in Protestant countries throughout the seventeenth century. 26 But, as opposed to voluntarists like Pufendorf and Locke, for Spinoza only human laws are really products of the will, although not free wills. 27 “Natural laws” are not rules legated and sanctioned by a divine will, but are instead generalities holding of all modes within an attribute; for example “the motion of a thing decreases by the same amount as the motion that it imparts to another body.” This sort of law has its support not in a divine legation but in “motion and rest,” an “absolute feature” of the attribute of extension, and one of a class of modes that Spinoza referred to as the infinite immediate and mediate modes. As discussed in the first part of this chapter, for Spinoza there are three basic sorts of beings: substance, attributes, and modes. These three beings

26 Of course, for Hobbes, Grotius, Pufendorf, and Locke, God is a willing lawmaker.

27 Spinoza claims that the will can apply to modes, but does not apply to substance or attributes. Consequently it does not apply to God (ip31). In modes “will” is the conatus or striving of a given mode “related only to the mind” (iiip9s, iip49s). There is no such thing as a free will in modes or human beings, the will is determined and is just a particular facet of determinate individuals, how their striving is understood in relation to their minds. Although God is free (id7), will does not apply properly to God. Consequently “free will” is derived from a concept properly predicated of modes (“will”) and a concept properly predicated of God (“free”) that cannot be predicated of God without contradiction. One possible objection to my interpretation is that “freedom” comes in degrees, that a “free man” is a mode, and has a degree of freedom although not the absolute freedom of God. But this line of argument would not apply to God, as I do not think we have degrees of will in the same sense. See Don Garrett, “ ‘A Free Man always Acts Honestly, Not Deceptively’: Freedom and God in Spinoza’s Ethics,” in Edwin Curley and Pierre-Franc¸ois Moreau (eds.), Spinoza: Issues and Directions (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), 22138.


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are grouped into an even more fundamental distinction between natura naturata (natured nature) and natura naturans (naturing nature). Right at the limit of the division between natura naturata and natura naturans are the infinite modes. They have some of the content we associate with attributes: they are eternal. But they are also modes. They have a crucial systemic place – as those modes that give rise to general laws – and yet they are most decidedly not natura naturans. Spinoza draws a number of distinctions among modes in the Ethics. As modes are an exceptionally broad category – all beings that are in and through other beings – we can refer to modes of attributes (a mode of extension, or a mode of thought), modes of substance (all modes are in and through substance in some very abstract sense), and modes of other modes (a moving being is a mode in the attribute of extension as well as a mode of another mode – “motion and rest” 28 ). We can distinguish between infinite and finite modes. Finally we can distinguish between the representative content of modes: among infinite modes there are those that are eternal and express the absolute nature of substance, and those that have duration and do not express the absolute nature of the attribute. That all these sorts of modes exist follows from Spinoza’s “principle of plenitude” as captured at ip11s, ip16, and ip35. Spinoza asserts that an infinity of modes arises 29 from substance, everything which falls under an infinite intellect (ip16), and everything comprehended by the divine power must actually exist. Thus, if something can follow from the divine power and is represented in the infinite intellect, it does follow unless there is some reason why it does not exist. Spinoza’s principle of sufficient reason as expressed in ip11s asserts that everything that exists has a reason or cause for existing, and whatever cannot exist has a reason for its not existing. The infinite modes are some of the infinity of beings arising from substance (ip16) and are thus clearly within God’s power. “Whatever we conceive as being within God’s power, necessarily exists” (ip35). There is no de facto reason why they do not exist (ip11s). 30 Hence they necessarily exist.

28 I place “motion and rest” in scare quotes because Spinoza views them as forming an entity when taken together, not individually.

29 It is important to be careful not to interpret the immediate infinite modes as emanating from God. They are eternal and not created in time. Consequently, it makes no sense to view them as arising in any temporal sense.

30 There could be reasons why the infinite modes do not exist, just as there are reasons why an infinite substance, God, is not a willer. For example it could be inconsistent to be both infinite and a mode. But, given Spinoza’s emphasis on there being different kinds of infinites (cf. Letter XII to be discussed in the next chapter), it does not seem to be incompatible for Spinoza to be infinite in a derivative sense (to be explained in the next section) and not eternal.

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 39

The infinite immediate modes (IIMs) and infinite mediate modes (IMMs) are some of these many modes following 31 from substance. They have a particularly important systematic place in Spinoza’s metaphysics:

they are eternal and infinite. 32 They are modes that share some of the prop- erties of substance and attributes, and hence they sit at the edge of the fault line between natura naturata and natura naturans. IIMs and IMMs are two of the toughest technical concepts in Spinoza’s philosophy. They are not attributes but are coextensive with attributes. “Motion and rest” applies to all extended things and consequently to all of extension, all extended bodies are moving or at rest. IIMs and IMMs are not the only infinite modes, 33 but the most important infinite modes distinguished by their distinctive representative content. 34 Although all modes exist out of divine necessity (i.e., God is the necessary condition of their existence [id7]), not all modes exist in an eternal manner. IIMs and IMMs differ from each other in pre- cisely the way that their names suggest. IIMs follow immediately from the absolute nature of the attribute and therefore are modes of the attribute, eternal and infinite through the attribute. IMMs are modes of IIMs and thus are eternal and infinite through them. Almost all of the modes we encounter in the everyday world have duration and are finite. IIMs and IMMs are thus modes that are substance-like and attribute-like (in that they are eternal) but still modes. This raises an obvious question. Are the infinite modes necessary in the strong sense? Must they exist in the way that substance and attributes must exist? Does existence belong to the essence of these modes? The answer is clearly no. Since all modes are considered by Spinoza to be natura naturata, their essences are caused by another and they cannot be conceived as causa sui (ip24). But, then, since these infinite modes are eternal, what does it mean to say that they are eternal if they are not necessary in a strong sense? I will return to this issue in the final chapter, but one interesting feature of Spinoza’s definition of eternity is that an infinite mode can satisfy it without being causa sui. Spinoza defines eternity as “existence itself, insofar as it is conceived to follow necessarily from the definition alone of the eternal

31 I mean “following” in a logical sense – i.e., “If substance then modes” – not in any temporal sense.

32 Some have argued that they ought properly to be considered sempiternal and not eternal.

33 That they are not the only infinite modes seems to follow from the fact that Spinoza differentiates degrees of infinity in Letter XII. But it does seem the case that all infinite modes that are not IMMs or IIMs are modes of IMMs or IIMs.

34 By the “representative content” of Y, I understand anything Y expresses that refers back to and is derived from some X. The “eternity” that an infinite mode has and expresses refers back to and derives from the attribute of which it is an infinite mode. A “distinctive representative content” distinguishes a group of modes from all other modes.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

thing” (id8). Thus eternity is not just a property of God, but a property of anything that follows necessarily from the divine essence. 35 The main systemic role of IIMs and IMMs in Spinoza’s metaphysics is to provide general laws holding of all modes, and thus to anchor the ways in which particular beings unite with others in a given attribute. They are thus an important means by which the nature of the attribute is present to the modes in a given attribute. For example, a basketball game is a shared practice of a group of finite modes, human basketball players. But it also is a concourse of causally interrelated bodies understood through motion and rest, and plays and strategies of individual modes and groups of modes understood through the infinite understanding (or at least some aspects of it are explicable in this manner, the fact that my body stops moving when we collide and yours starts to move). “Motion and rest” is a modification of the attribute of extension, coextensive with it, necessary and eternal but logically dependent on it (there is no “motion and rest” without extension) and in and through it qua mode (id5). One question is whether or not there exists a bottom level of atomic, material individuals from which singular things are built up. I can see no reason why, for Spinoza there must be, although simple bodies have a systematic importance in his physics. Rather iid7 seems to be a general causal variant of the physical principles of individuation of bodies that Spinoza gives in the “Definition” in his physics after iip13. 36 That a body is individuated by ratios of “motion and rest” means that it falls under the IIM of “motion and rest”. The fixed ratio is the reason for the unity of the body arising from the IIM. This reason entails a cause, that all of the parts that make up a human body, can together “move and dispose external bodies in a great many ways” (iip13postulate6). Consequently, with ultimate reference to the IIM of “motion and rest,” the body is as the body does. Although crucial, IIMs and IMMs are also notoriously difficult to make sense of because there is very little text in the Ethics to go on, and what text there is – particularly ip21 – is intractable to the point of

35 Spinoza explicates id8 with the remark, “such existence, like the essence of a thing, is conceived as an eternal truth, and on that account cannot be explained by duration or time, even if the duration is conceived to be without beginning or end” (id8 Exp.). This implies that any “existence” that a mode derives necessarily from the definition of an eternal thing – God – is also eternal. Spinoza does not say how we are to understand this existence, but, whatever it is, the infinite modes would seem to have it since they arise from the “absolute nature” of the attribute which, in turn, expresses the essence of substance. So as the infinite modes follow directly from the essence of substance they are, by definition, eternal.

36 See Don Garrett, “Spinoza’s Theory of Metaphysical Individuation,” in Kenneth F. Barber and Jorge J. E. Gracia (eds.), Individuation and identityin earlymodern philosophy: Descartes to Kant (Albany:

State University of New York Press, 1994), 73101. Garrett makes a compelling case for “individual” extending to all modes.

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 41

incomprehensibility. It is clear that for Spinoza there are IIMs and IMMS in each attribute, that the “infinite understanding” is an IIM in thought, “motion and rest” an IIM in extension, and “the face of the whole universe” an IMM in extension. 37 But what are they, other than shadowy entities that Spinoza considers to be necessary consequences of his metaphysics? Spinoza’s friend Georg Schuller asked him this question, albeit more politely. In response, Spinoza provided the example above of an IMM in the attribute of extension: the “face of the whole universe.” According to Spinoza, although the modes that make up the “face” may change, the “face” “remains always the same” (Letter LXIV). Spinoza’s discussion of the “face of the whole universe” is similar to the discussion of natural laws in TTP IV, where, as I have noted, Spinoza gave a version of the conservation of motion as an example of natural law. Although the “face” is the eternal, unchanging unity of all bodies in motion and at rest, the bodies themselves may and do move in infinite ways, but these “infinite ways” are always modes of this unchanging unity. 38 Given that in TTP IV Spinoza identifies laws with the activities of individual modes, it makes sense to view the IMMs as the infinity of actual modes, 39 finite and infinite. 40 This interpretation is supported by the simple point that it is not clear what the “total face of the universe” could mean as something independent of the many bodies that are or make up the “face.” By the “face” Spinoza just seems to mean that all modes that move and are moved and rest “always remain the same” can be taken together because qua moving bodies they act as expressions of infinite and eternal laws – in this case something like a law 41 of conservation of motion. Corroboration is found in iip13l7s where Spinoza refers to the whole of nature (by which he clearly means material nature) as “as one individual varying in infinite

37 See Letter LXIV.

38 One of the most notorious consequences of this picture is that time is not absolute, but only properly predicated of finite beings and in some sense unreal. It seems fairly indisputable that Spinoza believed this, at least insofar as the beings were finite, and many readers of Spinoza have found this to be a disastrous consequence of his metaphysics.

39 This assumes the difference between an infinity of modes and an infinite mode.

40 This interpretation follows Emilia Giancotti, who makes a helpful distinction between the infinite immediate modes as real systems of laws, and infinite mediate modes as “the infinite totality of all the bodies which make up the physical universe and the infinite totality of the minds of these bodies,” Emilia Giancotti, “On the Problem of Infinite Modes,” in Yirmiyahu Yovel (ed.), God and Nature: Spinoza’s Metaphysics (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991), 113. My only objection to this is Giancotti’s expression “infinite totality.” Totality has a somewhat Hegelian flavor, and seems to me to imply a sense of whole different from “totius.”

41 For the interpretation of infinite modes as laws see Yirmiyahu Yovel, “The Infinite Modes and Natural Laws in Spinoza” in Yovel (ed.), God and Nature: Spinoza’s Metaphysics (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991), 7996. See also Emilia Giancotti, “On the Problem of Infinite Modes,” and Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, 111.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

ways but unchanging as a whole.” And as these laws of motion and rest are eternal and unchanging, so also is the IMM that they comprise, insofar as they are expressions of the absolute features of the attribute. We then have established the following: (1) Oldenburg asked Spinoza how he thought the parts of nature cohered with the whole; (2) Spinoza responded that they agree or disagree in relation to laws, i.e. when one part adapts itself to the laws of another part; (3) Laws holding of modes are ultimately rooted in the absolute features of an attribute; (4) IIMs are eternal and in some sense coextensive with the attribute; (5) The IMMs are the infinity of infinite and finite modes since they are, taken together, a mode of the IIM in a given attribute; (6) Somewhere in the activities of the modes that taken together form the IMM, which in turn is necessary in and through the IIM, are the laws that govern nature. Now we have a problem. If Spinoza has IMMs in mind in his reply to Oldenburg, it is not clear how they might be used to explain the conflicts and coherences among laws, the main issue discussed in Spinoza’s response. Spinoza considers something to be “a part of a whole” when that thing is adapted to other parts such “that they are in accord among themselves as much as possible.” There can be no conflicts between parts dictated by infinite modes, or coherences between them, as that would imply a conflict in the absolute nature of the attribute. The attribute is necessary, eternal, and fully rational. How then are we to understand parts in terms of laws as Spinoza suggests we ought to? The problem is further exacerbated by a claim Spinoza made in the KV :

“The part and whole are not true or actual beings, but only beings of reason; consequently in Nature there are neither wholes nor parts” (KV i:25). This remark is supported and explained by another passage in the KV . The KV includes two interconnected dialogues, one between Intellect, Love, Reason, and Lust, and another between Erasmus and Theophilus (Spinoza’s stand-in). In the Second Dialogue Theophilus remarks: 42

To this we may add that the whole is only a being of reason and differs from the universal only in these respects: that the universal is made of various disunited individuals, whereas the whole is made of various united individuals, and that the universal includes only parts of the same kind, whereas the whole includes parts of the same kind and another kind. (KV i/323)

42 There is some dispute about this passage; see CW 78n6. I see no reason not to ascribe this view to Spinoza. In general the KV is a difficult text to work with. Numerous passages appear corrupt, it is clearly a draft, and it was likely translated from Latin into the Dutch we now have it in. But it is also full of valuable material. Although there are important inconsistencies between doctrines in the KV and the Ethics, there is far, far greater consistency.

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 43

It seems that Spinoza has something like the following in mind. Univer- sals and wholes are both beings of reason, fictitious products of human (or other finite) minds. Universals are beings of reason arising from our expe- riences of multiple distinct individuals of similar sorts and then predicated of these individuals. 43 We form a universal “horse” from our experiences of many distinct particular horses. Wholes are also beings of reason, but with the following difference. Wholes do not just hold of the same individual, i.e. gnus, but also of different parts all united in a whole, i.e., cheetahs, tsetse flies, and horses are all united in a whole ecosystem. But what wholes and universals have in common is far more important: they are both beings of reason, fictive products of the imagination. Why? Well, given Spinoza’s emphasis on laws as providing reasons for action, it would seem that both wholes and universals are lacking any ultimate reasons of the sort that mov- ing bodies have; there is no warrant for them as an individuated class or group deriving from the attribute, IIMs or IMMs. 44 In the letter to Oldenburg Spinoza emphasizes a reciprocal aspect of wholes: “To produce an idea in our mind which is distinct from the others, and is therefore considered [emphasis added] to be a whole, not a part.” Thus, when we judge X to be a whole, we judge it to be a whole precisely because it does not agree with Y, and we assume it to be an independent whole because it conflicts with another from whom we distinguish it. When we normally judge something to be a part, we judge it to be united with

43 It should be remembered that when Spinoza criticizes the term “universal” he means any universal built up from sense experience. He certainly has room for general concepts, such as modes, and there is no doubt that he thinks modes are real. The real problem comes with concepts that we both gain knowledge of through the senses and have a variety of rational theses about, “man” for example. Bennett provides an excellent analysis of how Spinoza uses similarities between individuals to generate classes like “man” (Bennett, A Studyof Spinoza’s Ethics, 279).

44 Take, for example, horses. Many humans have reason to need a good horse, but the definition of “good horses” varies according to circumstance (desert, mountain) and needs (Pony Express, 1/4 mile race track, farm). A universal concept “horse” built up in a human mind on this sort of knowledge would be a bad universal for Spinoza. Horses have various reasons for acting as they do, and they recognize various similarities between themselves that are important to these actions. Some, speed, may overlap with the content of our universal “horse.” Others, “ferocious biting teeth,” “musky smell only discernible by horse nose,” may not. We have very limited knowledge of any reasons and relevant similarities among horses. What we do know is that the drives, the bodily constitution, and the mental constitution of horses dictate these reasons. These are features of all modes, and thus arise from the attribute. We also know they move and rest in relation to the IIMs and IMMs in the attribute of extension. Consequently, we can really only provide a very general metaphysical analysis of horses, but being men we can have much more specific knowledge of human beings. Bennett takes the universal “man” as being paradigmatic for Spinoza’s attitude toward universals (Bennett, A Studyof Spinoza’s Ethics, 40), but it is actually a special case, one of the few determinate universals (i.e. not mode, extension, etc.) that we have access to. We have special access to it because we have direct knowledge of the human essence. I will return to this point in chapter 7.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

others in the manner described in the KV . Parts and wholes are fictive when we consider them as limited and interrelated, as parts forming wholes and wholes dictating the nature of parts. Furthermore, when we view the parts as not cohering, we view each part that does not cohere as a whole. You view my gang as a whole and vice versa when we are at war. We consider these parts to form wholes in turn when we find another part with which they do not cohere, and thus consider each other as wholes. My gang becomes the Sharks when the Jets appear. We imagine these wholes in turn to be parts of other wholes – all our gangs are New Yorkers when the wars with Boston begin – which are in turn limited by other wholes with which they do not cohere. This dialectic is then precipitated by ignorance. Wholes are, at least in part, a consequence for human minds of their lack of knowledge of the coherence of parts as well as a way in which we feign the unity of different sorts of individuals. So what makes the difference between this negative sense of parts and wholes as arising from our failure to understand, and Spinoza’s claim that we are a “part of nature”? In the letter that initiated Spinoza’s consideration of parts and wholes, Oldenburg made a grim comment about the Anglo-Dutch war: “There will be wickedness as long as there are men” (Letter XXIX). Spinoza responded:

I will expect news of what they have done recently, when the warriors are sated with blood, and rest in order to renew their strength a little. If the famous scoffer were alive to day, he would surely die of laughter. These disorders, however, do not move me to laughter nor even to tears, but rather they incite me to philosophizing, and to the better observation of human nature. I do not think it right for me to laugh at nature, much less to weep over it, when I understand that men, like the rest, are only a part of nature, and that I do not know in what way each part of nature agrees with the whole, and in what way it coheres with the rest; and I find that it is only through this defective cognition that I perceive some parts of nature, and then only in part and mutilated, and furthermore these parts agree little with our minds philosophically, all of which had seemed to me before to be vain, disordered, and absurd. 45

In this passage Spinoza emphasizes that we perceive most parts of na- ture only dimly, and we have no knowledge of what makes them parts in the sense that we do not understand their principles. This deflates what- ever pretension we might have to being the center of nature, to being an imperium within an imperium. Yet we do know that all these things we only dimly understand are parts of nature. This does not mean that they

45 The Correspondence of Spinoza, ed. and trans. Abraham Wolf (London: Allen and Unwin, 1928).

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 45

are parts of a greater whole, fitting with other parts into the vast eco-jigsaw puzzle that is nature. This sort of talk would demand a kind of knowledge of the constituent parts we are lacking. Rather “part” can only mean “has the same reasons for acting as all other natural beings” or has “determinate reasons for acting that we do have some access to since we belong to the part.” Consequently, although we can only know surprisingly little about a very few particular things, mainly human things, we can know a lot about the most universal and powerful things, those metaphysical truths that hold of each and every being which makes them all parts of nature. When we understand that all beings are constituted by and act from nature, we cease to laugh at or bemoan the conflicts between parts and wholes – British Navies and Dutch Navies – as both are only consequences of the limits of our cognition. 46 Rather, we try to understand parts in a different sense, as groups of modes that are together due to common determinate reasons for acting or laws. This, of course, has many resonances of the Stoic sage living according to nature. When Spinoza claimed in the KV that “the part and whole are not true or actual beings, but only beings of reason” and that “in Nature there are neither wholes nor parts,” he referred to wholes and parts as finite and fictional groupings of beings that need to be dispelled like Scholastic universals. This is much harder than it seems. Most things that we consider important in our ordinary life are parts of this sort. This dichotomy, between the absolute laws that govern nature and what appears to us, even after it has been carefully philosophically analyzed, has been described by Wilfred Sellars as the conflict between the “scientific image” and the “manifest image” of man. 47 More colloquially than Sellars meant the distinction, what is manifestly most important to us, grim wars for example, are in the absolute sense,from the perspective of the IIMs or the “scientific image,” not real. They are imaginary conflicts and imaginary wholes. The problem then, as framed by Sellars, is how to place man, and man’s careful philosophical understanding of the world in the scientific image. 48

46 Unfortunately sometimes we need to worry rather a lot about advancing armies. Spinoza’s point is that, even though this is the case, we need not consider this as arising from the laws of nature, i.e. as a dispensation of providence.

47 Wilfred Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in Science, Perception and Reality (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963), ch. 1.

48 This appears to conflict with the reality of something like a cell phone. But a cell phone has a causal description in terms of the laws of physics which explains how it results in an effect, much like a water pump or a triangle. This analysis would not hold for war since it would be difficult to provide a discrete effect. This issue will be returned to in the final chapter.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

the worm in the blood

This problem is brought to the fore by perhaps the most striking analogy in Spinoza’s work. 49 In Letter XXXII Spinoza presents us with the following example. Imagine a worm – the seventeenth-century term for a simple organism – is placed into the blood of a larger being. The chyle, the lymph and the other constituent elements of the blood are all parts, which when taken together can be said to cohere with other parts and form a whole – the circulatory system – but which, when viewed individually, by the worm, they are considered wholes in so far as they are differentiated from other parts, this bit of chyle from that bit of lymph, or chyle from lymph more generally. The worm lives in the blood, Spinoza writes, as “we live in this part of the universe” and as we attempt to make sense of and untangle our world, so the worm does with its world. Thus we are to make an analogy between the little worm’s condition and our own human attempts to understand our place in the universe. The worm observes the various ways which the blood particles counteract one another, and communicate part of their motion – how they differ. For this reason it considers each particle of blood as a whole, and sees itself within a universe of discrete, particular, imaginary wholes, 50 interacting, counteracting, and communicating their respective motions. The worm has no idea how all the imaginary wholes that it distinguishes within the blood – the chyle, lymph, etc. – are “moderated by the universal nature of the blood” (an expression clearly evocative of IMMs). The worm does not know how the chyle and lymph cohere together and are the blood. Furthermore, any access the worm has to the ebb and flow of the blood is through these imaginary wholes, and if the cohering parts that make up the blood are in turn parts of other sorts of systems or wholes, this is even more remote. Spinoza is clearly placing the worm into the condition he investigates in more geometrico in the middle sections of Part II of the Ethics and the opening of Part IV. Humans are like the worm, endemically overawed by external causes, ignorant of the bodies that impact their bodies, yet thoroughly dependent on them also.

49 Spinoza and Oldenburg had been discussing the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher’s popular (and strange) SubterraneanWorld , a work that probably prompted Spinoza to think about the worlds of microscopic beings. Another possible source might be Christopher Wren’s gruesome experiments injecting fluids and foreign agents into the bloodstreams of animals. They were discussed by both Oldenburg and Boyle. See Hall and Hall (eds. and trans.), The Correspondence of HenryOldenburg, ii, 3368, particularly 338n1. As Spinoza had a practical interest in microscopy, given his occupation as a lens grinder, there were also probably many sources in his experience.

50 I use “imaginary wholes” to mean wholes arrived at by the imagination.

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 47

How to deal with this predicament? Spinoza suggests that, to best under- stand our human bodies and minds, we should understand them as a “part of nature” in “the way we have here conceived the blood.” Our human minds and bodies move through nature and attempt to understand nature just as the worm does, as a “manifest image” in Sellars’ terms. We are continuously confronted by false and finite wholes and continuously stymied in our attempts to access the laws that temper our lives, the laws which endow us with that very motion by which and through which we course through the “blood” – our intellectual and bodily experiential worlds. The “blood” we seek to understand – as opposed to the blood within which the worm finds itself – seems if anything to inspire even greater des- peration as we attempt to make sense of it. Nature is infinite and infinitely more inaccessible than the bloodstream of a giant being. And the caveats that we began with – that we ought to give up hope of understanding how the parts of nature cohere and concentrate on truth, recognizing that we are only one part of nature – seem to point to the impossibility of affirmatively answering Oldenburg’s question: why ought we think they cohere at all? So we seem to be the most hopeless of worms: when we perceive wholes we have no access to parts, and when we perceive parts the whole seems infinitely remote due to our inadequacies. As Spinoza claimed above:

I do not know in what way each part of nature agrees with the whole, and in what way it coheres with the rest; and I find that it is only through this defective cognition that I perceive some parts (quaedam) of nature, and then only in part and mutilated, and furthermore these parts agree little with our minds philosophically, all of which had seemed to me before to be vain, disordered, and absurd.

Yet Spinoza sees a glimmer of hope, and points to two possible answers to our predicament. First, we must consider Spinoza’s advice that we “are only one part of nature” and see the positive content in the expression “part of nature.” Our partitude is something that we share not only with men but with many other sorts of beings. We are just one part of nature so we ought not make too much out of our limitations, we ought not view them as something which elevates us above the rest of nature in sublimity or drops us below in depravity. Of course, this does not mean that the goal of the Ethics is not to speak to like-minded humans, it is. Nor does it mean we have ultimate access to what they are, we do not. But part of the purpose is also to show humans that they are not so different from the rest of nature as they might think, as well as to explain from whence these feelings of superiority come.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

Second, at the end of Letter XXXII Spinoza remarks: “I conceive that with regard to substance each part has a closer union with its whole.” Here Spinoza is clearly using whole in a positive sense, as well as part. There is something about the relation of substance to mode, as opposed to that of worm to blood, which, although apparently infinitely more inaccessible, abstract, and remote, is actually more proximate and draws out a different sense of part. Substance has no parts, so we cannot be a part of substance. But a “part” of nature has a special relation to substance through the general metaphysical features that hold of all beings as such. They arise from sub- stance and attributes, are through substance and attributes, and all beings manifest these features whatever their finite contexts. This body and that thought are modes of substance, strive to persist in their existence, have God as their absolutely first cause, etc. – i.e. infinite mode laws. 51 In this sense “part” means a modification of the infinite modes, and whole means the ways in which the infinite modes express the nature of substance. “Part” does not mean constituent part or a thing teleologically interlocking with and fitting together with other parts. If we are “part” of the face of the whole universe, this means that we share certain features with other sorts of beings and, as such, are modifications of infinite modes – the whole is just the ways in which all extended beings are modifications of the laws of nature. “Parts” cannot be determined by final causes or teleological principles; they do not fit together into systems nested like Russian dolls. They are not moving toward perfection, order, or beauty. Our partitude is just that we, like other beings, “take part” in attributes and substance via the ways in which we are determined. 52 This sense of part and whole cannot explain coherence or conflict. It has nothing to do with orders or aesthetic hierarchies. Nor can it make sense of how and why we know this. Spinoza adds somewhat mysteriously in the next sentence that the human mind is “the infinite power of Nature” in thought, “not insofar as it is

51 A possible criticism of this might be that, whereas motion and rest is an infinite mode and expresses the absolute nature of the attribute, it expresses the attribute of extension, not attribute as such, and not those metaphysical features which hold of all attributes. But, insofar as the attribute expresses substance, the absolute nature of the attribute must express the whole of substance, and thus all those features that hold of each and every attribute. This is part of why one might want to refer infinite mode laws not only to the distinctive features of a given infinite mode, but also to those general features whereby it represents the absolute nature of substance. Put in Spinoza’s terms, this is why iip1 and iip2, God is a thinking thing and God is an extended thing, hold; the attribute represents both extension and the trans-attributal character of God.

52 Both that Spinoza understands parts in this sense, and views this knowledge as therapeutic, is reinforced by Spinoza’s conclusion to the “Appendix” to Ethics IV: “Nevertheless, we shall bear

that we are a part of the whole

calmly those things which happen to us

of nature, whose order we follow” (IV “Appendix” XXXII).

if we are conscious

Some central themes in Spinoza’s Ethics 49

infinite and perceives the whole of Nature, but insofar as it is finite and perceives only the human Body.” This is the crucial fact that Spinoza seems to think will help us to understand, as opposed to laughing and crying at, the various parts of nature that we see about us, and to leave them to their own inclinations. But how are we to make sense of our access to ourselves as infinite perceivers, qua our finite understanding of our own bodies? In sum, then, Spinoza’s answer to Oldenburg is in a sense simple. There are abiding metaphysical principles which are expressed in our world, and these metaphysical principles offer whatever unity there is. These principles when properly recognized undermine many of the pretensions humans have about their importance in the world. They allow us to cease worrying about things beyond our control and teach us to live for truth and allow others to live after their own inclinations. But how do we get to these principles? And what is the infinite power of nature in so far as we finitely perceive our bodies?

chapter 2

A few further basic concepts

This chapter introduces some important concepts in Spinoza’s philosophy that will be drawn upon extensively in subsequent chapters. In the Ethics it seems as if every concept is quite literally interconnected with every other concept, and there is no way to explain the part without reference to many other parts and the whole. Trying to understand the Ethics we are in the position of our worm in the previous chapter, trying to make sense of a whole through the parts yet at the same time recognizing that all the parts are interconnected through principles that seem out of our reach. In order to cope with this problem, many of the best-known works on Spinoza are written as commentaries on the Ethics as a whole. By comment- ing on the Ethics section by section, Spinoza’s terminology and concepts can be introduced in the narrative sequence in which they arise. This is, of course, very advantageous, but it makes it difficult to concentrate on a specific issue – like Spinoza’s method. For this reason I pursue only two partially satisfactory alternatives. In this chapter I treat a few key concepts in order that discussion of them does not unduly detract from the larger narrative; and then, as the book proceeds, I introduce technical issues and technical problems. So this excursus into some of Spinoza’s concepts does not seem too unmotivated, I will point at the conclusion of the chapter toward their relevance for Spinoza’s claim introduced at the end of the last chapter:

the human mind is “the infinite power of Nature” in thought “not insofar as it is infinite and perceives the whole of Nature, but insofar as it is finite and perceives only the human Body.” To understand this claim we need to understand Spinoza’s take on the infinite. We need to have some background in Spinoza’s theory of knowledge. Finally, we will need to know something about Spinoza’s ways of thinking about external and internal causes.


A few further basic concepts


the three kinds of knowledge and adequacy

In Part II of the Ethics (iip40s2) Spinoza introduces a distinction between three kinds of knowledge. Throughout the Ethics Spinoza implies that this typology of kinds of knowledge is exhaustive – any new kind of knowledge one might think up would really just be one of these three. Spinoza calls the first kind of knowledge “imagination” or experientia vaga and it actually includes two (or perhaps three) identifiably different sorts of knowledge:

sensory knowledge and knowledge from testimony or signs. Spinoza also implies that memory falls under the first kind of knowledge (iip18s). From the fact that the first kind of knowledge includes a number of different ways of knowing – immediate sensory perception, memory, beliefs based on testimony or signs – we can see that Spinoza’s distinction between kinds of knowledge is based both on the way in which knowledge is received and the nature of the content. Memory, knowledge by testimony or signs, and sense perception are all received by happenstance, what Spinoza calls the “common order of nature,” and are all lacking in intrinsic order. For this reason, Spinoza lumps them together as one kind of knowledge, the first kind of knowledge: “mutilated, confused, and without order for the intellect” (iip40s2). In the Ethics Spinoza refers to the second kind of knowledge as reason. Reason regards “things as necessary” and views them “under a species of eternity.” By this Spinoza meant that reason gets at those eternal scientific, metaphysical, and logical ideas and structures that are only accessed in a damaged and limited way by the first kind of knowledge. The central objects of reason are “common notions”: our ideas of those properties of bodies that “all bodies agree” on, for example “now they move slowly, now quickly, and now they absolutely are able to be moved, now they are able to rest” (iip13l2dem). Each of these predicates applies to each and every body there is. Since all bodies agree in them, the ideas we form of them are common to all modes in the attribute of extension. Spinoza further implies that the common properties the bodies agree on are a consequence of properties that hold of the attribute as a whole – for example motion and rest (iip13l2dem.). Consequently commonality – i.e. that a property holds of each and every mode in a given attribute – is an important marker of the second kind of knowledge. 1 But there are other ways of characterizing the difference

1 It would appear, although Spinoza does not say it explicitly, that knowledge arising from or grounded in common ideas is also understood via the second kind of knowledge. If I formed an idea of a group of common ideas, let’s say a complex idea of a body (X and Y and Z) built on common features of


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

between the first and second kinds of knowledge. One difference is that the

content of the first kind of knowledge is contingent (“I see this or that”) and arises from contingent circumstances (“that I am impacted in such and such

a way by such and such a body”), whereas the content of the second (and

third) kind of knowledge is eternal. Another important difference is the way that we receive the knowledge. We receive the first kind of knowledge according to the common order of nature (iip29c): it is caused by bodies and

by properties of bodies that we do not share and thus have no knowledge of their causal antecedents. 2 The second kind of knowledge is of properties common to each and every body and the common notions arising from them. We have these ideas regardless of whether or not we are impacted by

a body since we have a body (that has these common properties) and this

body is the object of our minds. One last important distinction between the second kind of knowledge and the first kind of knowledge is in terms of “adequacy.” Adequacy is one of Spinoza’s most important concepts. Spinoza claims that the second and third kinds of knowledge are adequate as opposed to the first kind of knowledge, which is inadequate (p41dem.). Consequently, in order to understand the second (and third) kinds of knowledge we need to get a handle on adequacy. Spinoza seems to have been led to adequacy, and his distinction between truth and adequacy, via Descartes’ distinction between “clear and distinct ideas” and truth as correspondence, and the Cartesian notion that some ideas – like the cogito – are certain independent of any external verification. Descartes’ argument in the Second Meditation that “I am, I exist” is certain holds independent of the existence of my body or of anything beyond “I” and the deceiver. Spinoza is drawing on this Cartesian insight when he defines an adequate idea as that “which, insofar as it is considered in itself (in se) without relation to an object, has all the intrinsic properties or denominations of a true idea” (iid4). He does not define truth in the Ethics but he does give us at least one characteristic of a true idea, it “should agree with its object (ideatum),” (iid6). But truth is clearly important in understanding adequacyfor Spinoza, at least negatively,

bodies (X), (Y), and (Z), this idea would also be rational if X, Y, and Z were interconnected through causal laws. This is important for two reasons. First, if the second kind of knowledge was only to be had of those common notions holding of all bodies, it is hard to imagine how this knowledge could get very far. To know that all bodies move is good, but one might want to know other things about bodies that are a trifle more complex. Second, if common notions can be causally interconnected in such a way that adequacy is preserved, we can begin to see how we can have adequate knowledge of differences between entities. 2 Michael Della Rocca, following Jonathan Bennett, emphasizes this as the “inadequacy” of the first kind of knowledge (Michael Della Rocca, Representation and the Mind–Body Problem in Spinoza [Oxford University Press, 1996], 56). I will return to this below.

A few further basic concepts 53

since he adds the following “explanation” to his definition of adequacy at iid4 – “I say intrinsic in order to exclude that which is extrinsic, namely the agreement of the idea with its object.” Is adequacy a property of ideas or a relation? Jonathan Bennett has ar- gued that adequacy is “a relation, not a property.” 3 Bennett emphasizes that adequacy is a relation because for Spinoza ideas are clearly inadequate in relation to minds. For example, I may have an inadequate idea – the idea of that chair I receive through my senses – but the same idea may be adequate in the “divine mind.” 4 Consequently, it seems proper to characterize inad- equacy as a relation or a relational property that holds of ideas in relation to minds, just as truth is a relation holding between an idea and its object. The fact that inadequacy is relational does not necessarily mean that adequacy is relational. In fact, the definition of adequacy appears to describe an intrinsic property and not a relation: an adequate idea “has all the intrinsic properties or denominations of a true idea” (iid4). What does “intrinsic denomination” mean? There is some evidence from the TIE that Spinoza thought of “intrinsic denomination” as first of all ruling out cases where agreement with an object was merely extrinsic (TIE 69). 5 Thus, if someone has the belief that Peter exists but does not know if Peter exists or not (i.e., has no warrant for their belief ), we might say that the idea was true just if Peter happened to exist. In this case there would be agreement between an idea (“Peter exists”) and a state of affairs (that Peter does exist) and a purely “extrinsic denomination”: true but inadequate. There is further evidence concerning the distinction between truth and adequacy in a letter to Tschirnhaus from 1675, although it is terse and difficult to interpret. 6

3 Jonathan Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984), 178.

4 What adequacy means in relation to the divine mind is, like much in Spinoza’s philosophy, elusive. By “divine mind” I understand nothing anthropomorphic, but rather what Spinoza expresses at iip1, God as a thinking thing. In the demonstration Spinoza refers to ip25c to characterize those singular thoughts that express God’s nature in a certain determinate way. I think that Spinoza considers adequacy in the divine mind to be just this fact, i.e. that ideas belong to the attribute of thought and follow from the divine essence (iip3) when taken individually (as opposed to in relation to an object). Inadequacy arises when our minds fail to express the entirety of this content, or when we have only partial access to more than one idea which we then conflate and confuse.

5 See G. H. R. Parkinson, Spinoza’s Theory of Knowledge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954), 12832. Spinoza does not use the term “adequacy” in the TIE, this is one of the most salient differences between the TIE and the Ethics. Rather he uses “truth” to characterize what will be divided into both true and adequate ideas in the Ethics. He does, though, primarily identify “clear and distinct” ideas in the TIE with what will be called “adequate ideas” in the Ethics. This is reinforced by the fact that Spinoza refers to adequate ideas as clear and distinct at vp3.

6 “Between a true and an adequate idea I accept no other difference than that the word ‘true’ considers only the agreement of the idea with its ideatum; the word ‘adequate’ considers the nature of the idea in itself. Thus there is no real difference that may be given between a true and an adequate one beyond (praeter) this extrinsic relation” (Letter LX). This passage can be interpreted in two ways. It


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

Spinoza gives a second example that expresses a positive property of adequate ideas. “If a craftsman (faber) properly conceives of an object he wishes to make (fabricam), although this object may not exist or even will never exist, nevertheless the thought the craftsman has is true, and the thought is the same whether the object exists or not” (TIE 69). This is a positive characterization of “intrinsic denomination” and Spinoza’s point seems to be that an idea can have some sort of content, as a consequence of being “properly” conceived, that is independent of its relation to the object to which the content apparently refers. This content would seem to have to arise from common features of objects. For example, there is clearly some sort of difference between a craftsman’s plan to build a clock that is in accordance with the laws of nature (mathematical and physical laws, for example) and a crazy fantasy clock planned on misinterpretations of the laws of nature. The difference between the two clocks holds independent of whether either clock will ever exist. Still, I think these passages from the TIE are consistent with viewing adequacy as a relation. Although to be adequate assumes some sort of internal coherence, Spinoza also always presents adequacy as something minds have in relation to this internal coherence. By internal coherence I understand the sort of thing implied by the clock example, consistent with the laws of nature in such a way that the various determinate features of the idea of the clock – ideas of gears, pendulums, etc. – do not contradict one another. An ideal candidate for an adequate idea in this sense would be an essence; of course the clock example brings up the tricky problem that it is not actualized, and it seems for Spinoza that everything that has an essence would be actualized. 7 In Part III of the Ethics Spinoza introduced a way of characterizing adequate ideas as “adequate causes,” i.e., in terms of their efficaciousness. But this presupposes adequacy, so it does not explain what adequacy is simpliciter.

can be interpreted strongly as saying that the set of adequate ideas is a subset of the set of true ideas, i.e. true ideas have both extrinsic and intrinsic markers and adequate ideas only intrinsic markers. On this reading, all true ideas are adequate but not all adequate ideas (necessarily) are true. Or it can be read weakly as stating that what distinguishes a true idea from an adequate idea (as opposed to an adequate idea from a true one) is the presence or absence of the extrinsic relation. On the weak reading, adequate ideas may also be true (although they are not necessarily true) and true ideas may also be adequate (although they are not necessarily adequate). If an idea is true but not adequate then we get the first state of affairs that Spinoza describes in the TIE, a mere extrinsic correlation. If it is adequate but not true we get the second state of affairs described in the TIE, the unrealized machine. As the weak reading is consistent with the TIE, it seems preferable to me. 7 I am not really sure how to deal with this very basic problem. One could say, on the one hand, that the essence of the thought clock is something different from the essence of a given real clock, it is a reflection on the structural features of clocks more generally, an essence of an essence, but this does not seem to get one very far.

A few further basic concepts 55

Spinoza seems to have something of the following sort in mind. An idea is adequate if (1) it is internally consistent (i.e. does not entail a logical contradiction or a contradictory application of the laws of nature), (2) it

need not refer to anything external to itself (as a true idea does), but (3) it must have an internal cause of which we also have adequate knowledge and

it must depend on no inadequate ideas (iip34dem.). This last criterion is

recursive but not destructively so. If adequacy is a relation then (1) and (2) are defined in relation to a mind: ultimately the divine mind. The regress of (3) stops at God’s idea in thought, and this is the fundamental relation that each adequate idea must have – to “the perfect idea in God insofar as he constitutes the essence of our Mind” (iip34dem.). That Spinoza has something like (3) in mind follows from his claim that inadequate ideas are like “a conclusion without premises” (iip28). If this is the case, then

it seems to follow that adequate ideas are like conclusions with premises.

Consequently I take Spinoza to mean that adequate ideas are ideas whose causes we know, as well as knowing how and that these causes result in the idea. 8 Knowing the causes is a basic support of (1) and (3). Conversely, an idea is inadequate if: (1) it is internally inconsistent, (2) it necessarily

refers to something external, or (3) we lack knowledge of its cause or it has an inadequate cause or it depends on inadequate ideas. It is important to note that any positive content in an inadequate idea must come from somewhere, and the logical place from which to imagine it comes is an adequate idea or, to follow Spinoza’s example through, a conclusion with a premise.

A paradigmatic example of adequate knowledge would be the knowledge we have of properties of bodies that “all bodies agree” on, such as they are “now they move slowly, now quickly, and now they absolutely are able to be moved, now they are able to rest” (iip13l2dem). It does not depend on the existence of a particular body as its ideatum since it is a general idea of

a property shared by all bodies. It is internally consistent since it follows

directly from the laws of nature. Since our body, too, follows from these laws, we can understand general properties of bodies without having to include inadequate ideas of bodies external to us of which we have only partial and inadequate knowledge. And, finally, we have knowledge of the cause of these relations or properties – the idea of God that we all have. For Spinoza, the second kind of knowledge extends to most of what we ordinarily think of as proper reason and reasoning. As I have noted, reason

8 In a way this is just a consequence of ia4, “understanding an effect depends on and involves under- standing the cause.”


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

is only one of the two adequate sorts of knowledge. Spinoza also introduces

“a kind of knowing which proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to the adequate knowledge of the [NS:

formal] essence of things” (iip40s2, CW 478). He calls this scientia intuitiva or the “third kind of knowledge.” I will turn to this sort of knowledge in

the final chapter.

internal and external cause

Adequacy draws on a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic, between externally caused and internal to an idea, that is not easy to understand. This distinction is employed in a number of Spinoza’s most important arguments, in particular his argument for the conatus at Ethics iiip46.

I will argue that the distinction between internal and external is also im-

plicit in the solution Spinoza proposed to the worm’s confusion about the blood that we considered in the conclusion to the last chapter: “the infinite power of Nature” in thought” (Letter XXXII). But how does this distinction work? I will take a preliminary step in this section toward under- standing the distinction by presenting one of the most common ways that Spinoza draws the external/internal distinction, via external and internal causes. External causes are efficient causes – i.e., causes with effects – that are not part of the definition or essence of a thing. For example, in the scholium to ip11 – “God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses an eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists” – Spinoza notes:

Still there may be many who will not easily be able to see how evident this demon- stration is, because they have been accustomed to contemplate only those things that flow from external causes. And of these, they see that those things which quickly come to be, i.e., which easily exist, also easily perish. (CW 418)

Further on in the same scholium, Spinoza remarks:

For things that come to be from external causes – whether they consist of many parts or of few – owe all the perfection or reality they have to the power of the external cause; and therefore their existence arises only from the perfection of their external cause, and not from their own perfection. On the other hand, whatever perfection substance has is not owed to any external cause. (CW 418)

When we view nature as external cause – as what Spinoza calls the “common order of nature” – we imagine that what each part of nature is, is only explicable in terms of how it arises from and is destroyed by efficient

A few further basic concepts 57

causes external to it. We observe that many of the things that can come into existence most easily via external causes – a milkshake or a desire for a milkshake (invoking Spinoza’s broad identification of mode and thing) for example – can cease to exist just as quickly. Through this association we come to the unwarranted conclusion that if something comes to exist simply or easily it can also cease to exist just as quickly or easily. The conclusion is unwarranted as it moves from judgments about the natures of various things via the imagination to claims about their existence or non-existence. 9 Thus the induction that results from judging nature in re external causes leads to an impoverished and false understanding of nature and natures. When we consider God’s existence through internal causes we come to the opposite conclusion, that finite modes need the concurrence of multiple external causes to explain them, whereas God’s existence arises from its very essence or definition, as is obvious to those who attend to internal causes. And this holds not just of God, but of anything with an essence. To understand something’s essence is to understand its inter- nal cause, whether this cause is self-sufficient or arises from some other being. 10 This is further amplified in Spinoza’s discussion of ip7 – “It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist” – the primary proposition called upon in ip11. Spinoza remarked about this proposition that:

I do not doubt that the demonstration of p7 will be difficult to conceive for all who judge things confusedly, and have not been accustomed to know things through their first causes – because they do not distinguish between the modifications of

substances and the substances themselves

nature of substance, they would have no doubt at all of the truth of p7. Indeed this proposition would be an axiom for everyone, and would be numbered among common notions. (Ip8s2,CW 41213)

This passage shows that Spinoza wants to provide us with a particular way of looking at the world, through the internal and first causes of things, as opposed to through contingent features immediately evident to the senses. One of the main purposes of the Ethics is to give readers access to first

But men who would attend to the

9 The ultimate support for this is tied up with Spinoza’s arguments for the inadequacy of the first kind of knowledge – testimony or imagination – and that this knowledge, insofar as it is inadequate, is incapable of judging the ultimate contingency or necessity of its objects as it is intrinsic to imagination to consider everything to be contingent. 10 Of course, we do not know the essences of all things just because we know God is their ultimate cause. We would need to know how God is the cause of the determinate features of their essence, i.e. what they are as this or that sort of mode not just a mode in general.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

principles and first causes and to understand how propositions like ip7, when considered in the proper way, are as evident as axioms. 11 There are two main sources for Spinoza’s use of internal cause and external cause, one remote and one proximate. The remote source is the neo-Scholastic Heereboord’s distinction between an immanent cause as a cause which produces an effect in se ipsa and a transient cause as a cause which produces an effect extra se. Heereboord’s distinction between imma- nent and transient causes is similar to Spinoza’s differentiation between internal and external causes. Ultimately, though, this definition seems to warrant a neo-Aristotelian, and rather un-Spinozistic, distinction be- tween essential predicates or propria which can be said to derive from the essence of something and accidental features external to the essence of a thing. 12 The proximate source for Spinoza’s account of internal cause is Descartes’ distinction between external and internal causes. Spinoza presents the dis- tinction in the PP as bisecting the category of cause into “either an external one, i.e., one outside the thing itself, or an internal one, i.e., one compre- hended in the nature and definition of the existing thing itself ” (PP ia11). This is not terribly far removed from Heereboord’s sense, and thus was amenable to Cartesio-Scholastics. 13 As I have noted, this sort of definition is far from unique to early modern philosophers. Scotus, for example used a similar distinction to build the contingency of creature into his proof of God via an emphasis on extrinsic

11 Spinoza’s category of axioms corresponds to Euclid’s “koina ennoia” or common notions. Spinoza understands axioms to be principles agreed upon by all people (but does not mean that all people grasp their power). I have claimed previously that Spinoza places his primary emphasis on definitions not axioms (as opposed to modern mathematicians or Leibniz). He does this for a fairly simple reason. Ultimately axioms derive from common features of various entities – substance, attribute, bodies, and minds. Axioms are logically dependent on entities such as substance and attributes, and substance and attributes have essences or definitions. Thus axioms ultimately reflect features of things defined, more particularly substance and attributes.

12 Martial Gueroult emphasizes the importance of Heereboord in this context. He views Heereboord’s distinction as presenting an emanative conception of causation which Spinoza is seeking to criticize by the argument that to be a cause is to be immanent. See Martial Gueroult, Spinoza I – Dieu (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1968), 2978. Spinoza would not support the Aristotelian account of essential predicates nor the essence/accident distinction (as contingency is often a property not of the predicates themselves, but rather of our modes of cognizing them).

13 See particularly Johannes Clauberg, Logica: Vetus et Nova (Amsterdam: Elzevir, 1658), i.6, 51. As Cartesio-Scholastics go, Clauberg was very much on the “Cartesio” side, but was clearly try- ing to reconcile the “vetus et nova.” This work was originally published in 1652 and Spinoza owned a copy. Often Aristotelians made an additional distinction grounded in Physics I (although Clauberg did not) between the constituent internal causes (matter and form insofar as they enter into a hylomorphic compound), and the four causes insofar as they act on a given hylomorphic compound.

A few further basic concepts 59

causes as over and against intrinsic causes. 14 What distinguishes Descartes and Spinoza from their forebears is that they do not mention accidents and they only allow for efficient causes 15 where the Aristotelians considered form and matter to be paradigmatic internal causes. Spinoza used “immanent cause” in a manner similar to internal cause. At Ethics ip18 Spinoza opposes “immanent cause” to “transitive cause”:

Everything that is, is in God, and must be conceived through God (by p15), and so (by p16c1) God is the cause of [NS: all] things which are in him. (CW 428)

This implies that a cause is immanent of, or to, those things which arise “in” and “through” it, and a cause is transitive of those things which can be said neither to be caused “in” or “through” it. 16 Thus, God would be immanent to a given mode, insofar as that mode is conceived through God and in God. Spinoza only applies immanent cause to God or substance, unlike the broader term internal cause that could apply to any mode. This is built into the proof of the proposition since Spinoza argues that, in order for there to be a transitive cause, it, too, would have to be a substance. As there are no other substances external to the one substance capable of functioning as transitive causes, God is the one and only immanent cause. 17 In this way God as immanent cause is the ur-condition of everything that has an internal cause, each thing is what it is ultimately insofar as it has God as its immanent cause. This points to a notable difference from Descartes. In the Meditations God is both inside and outside – the idea of God is in each of our minds but God as cause of the idea in me is outside of my mind. This, in turn, is one of the cornerstones of Descartes’ arguments for the existence of the external world and the freedom of the divine will. Although the idea of God is in my mind, through an act of divine volition, the reality that it represents points outside my mind (or anyone else’s mind for that matter). 18 In some

14 See, particularly, Duns Scotus, De Primo Principio, ii.8. On the impact of Scotism on Descartes, and the enormous popularity of Scotism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, see Roger Ariew, Descartes and the Last Scholastics (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

15 Zabarella is a crucial figure, along with the Nominalists, in the changing emphasis from formal and final causes to efficient causes in definitions. Although Zabarella held final causes to be important, he interpreted material causes as a sort of efficient causa fluens (de Medio Demonstrationis, in Zabarella, Opera Logica, 592e) efficient causes qua matter, and formal causes as whatever of the other causes is the best explanation (ibid., 5901, and also 440c).

16 Adrian Heereboord, Melemeta Philosophica (Amsterdam: Joannem Ravesteinium, 1665), 229.

17 His demonstration that God is not the transitive cause of things reads: “And then outside God there can be no substance (by p14), i.e. (by d3), thing which in itself is outside God” (ip18).

18 Of course, this sort of interpretation of Descartes as a Scotistic voluntarist is disputable, but see Ariew, Descartes and the Last Scholastics, ch. 1.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

ways Spinoza is thinking in a way entirely at odds with this voluntarist conception of God and revisiting the Stoic distinction between inside and outside, inside and outside my power. Despite this major difference – which makes God also an external cause for Descartes – both Spinoza and Descartes agree that God is absolutely infinite (although they mean different things by this as I will show shortly). For Spinoza, the absolutely infinite is the key to understanding how God is an immanent cause, and how we are to understand things through internal causes. This is obvious in a sense, only if we understand how and that God is absolutely infinite can we then have any access to the adequate idea of God. But, as we just saw in the case of ip7, the fact that God is evidently infinite does not thereby mean that it is evident to everyone, as most of us are flummoxed by the inadequate testimonies of our imaginations.

the infinite

Early modern philosophers were fascinated by the infinite. This was for fairly obvious reasons: the power of the infinite in mathematics and the idea of the infinite universe were trumpeted by the philosophical and scientific avant-garde as signaling major dividing lines from the closed and finite uni- verse that they associated with Scholastic physics. Scholastic philosophers had also emphasized the infinite, the infinite power of God for example, but they normally strongly opposed God’s infinity to the finite and closed cos- mos. Nicolas of Cusa, though, placed the infinite at the center, literally, 19 of the human world. Bruno radicalized Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus orbum caelestium by presenting it as an argument for an infinite cosmos. 20 In 1643 Torricelli demonstrated that one could construct a solid of finite volume and infinite length, a result that prompted rich responses from some of the greatest mathematicians and philosophers writing in the third quarter of the seventeenth century. 21 Although the infinite is particularly associated with Leibniz, Spinoza and Descartes both made God’s infinity central to their philosophies. For Descartes, our idea of the infinite was our connection to God and the bridge between the individual cogito and the world. At the same time Descartes emphasized that positive infinity was solely predicated of God, the material

19 In particular see Nicholas of Cusa, De Ludo Globi (New York: Abaris Books, 1986).

20 See Hilary Gatti, Giordano Bruno and Renaissance Science (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), chs. 3, 6, and 7.

21 See the excellent discussion in Paolo Mancosu, Philosophy of Mathematics & Mathematical Practice in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford University Press, 1996), ch. 5.

A few further basic concepts 61

world could only properly be considered indefinite or without end. 22 What distinguished God’s infinity from the indefiniteness of the world was that in God “not only do we fail to recognize any limits in any respect, but our understanding tells us that there are none,” whereas in the case of the indefinite “we merely acknowledge that any limits which they may have, have not been discovered by us.” 23 Spinoza wanted to extend and radicalize some of Descartes’ ideas about God’s infinity by extending God’s infinity to the world, i.e. by arguing like Bruno that nature is not only indefinite but actually infinite. In order to do this, Spinoza had to show that the strict Cartesian dividing line between infinite and indefinite did not hold, at least exactly in the way that Descartes construed it. 24 Spinoza began a letter to his friend Meyer by announcing the singularity of his discovery, which he took great pride in since “the question of the Infinite has been found to be most difficult by everyone” (Letter XII). Spinoza claimed that people misunderstood the infinite for three reasons:

(1) [T]hey have not distinguished between that which follows as infinite by con- sequence of its nature or by the force of its definition; and what has no ends, but not indeed by the force of its essence. (2) They have not distinguished between that which is called infinite because it has no ends; and that the parts of which, although (quamvis) we have its minimum and maximum, we are unable to explicate or equate with any number. (3) Finally, they have not distinguished between that which we can only understand, but not truly imagine, and that which we can indeed imagine. (g iv/53) 25

These distinctions are quite ambiguous. It is not clear at first whether Spinoza is distinguishing between types of infinite or between the infinite and the indefinite like Descartes (although later in the letter it becomes apparent that Spinoza was distinguishing between types of infinity). But the ambiguity seems intentional since Spinoza clearly meant the letter for





Principles i.267 and ii.21. See Roger Ariew, “The Infinite in Descartes’ Conversation with Burman,” in Archiv fur¨ Geschichte der Philosophie 69 (1987), 14063; Ariew, Descartes and the Last Scholastics, 1701; Jean-Marie Beyssade, Etudes sur Descartes: L’histoire d’un esprit (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2001),


Descartes, Principles, i.27. Spinoza’s rendering of Descartes’ definition of “indefinite” is at PP iid4.

This is already apparent in the PP. Spinoza remarks we “can conceive infinite variations of matter.

I say we conceive them clearly and distinctly so long as we conceive them as modes of extension,

but not as things really distinct from extension” (pp iip6s). This implies that “infinite” is properly predicated of matter, or of modes of matter. Spinoza ascribes this claim to Descartes, but Descartes

never really says this.

I have added the numbers.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

a Cartesian audience and remarks that Meyer can refer to his second sort

of infinite as indefinite “if he prefers.” So what did Spinoza wish to claim about the infinite? His first distinction holds between infinite in itself, qua its definition or essence, and something we consider infinite but not through its essence. For readers today this will seem a bit odd, as Spinoza considers the infinite not to be a number in any

of the ways we ordinarily think of number, but rather a metaphysical pred- icate attached to beings, i.e. “infinite substance,” “infinite mode.” When

a mathematician constructs an infinite set or set theoretical hierarchy, the mathematician applies a recursive procedure to generate the counting in-

.) from a finite set and then via the power set operation

the various levels of the infinite (a 1 ,a 2 ,

the finite to the transfinite and infinite. Spinoza’s metaphysical account of the infinite moves in the opposite direction, the infinite is not caused by or defined through a procedure applied to finite sets or numbers. Rather the infinite is defined as infinite in and of itself, and beings that are infinite but have a cause are caused by it. This distinction will be quite important when we consider the definition of God in subsequent chapters. At first glance, though, it makes sense to differentiate between something that is infinite in and of itself and something that is derivatively or transitively infinite. There is no reason per se that something could not be derivatively infinite, as opposed to merely indefinite. Allowing for “derivative infinity” has an important systematic place in Spinoza’s philosophy in distinguishing the sort of infinity that substance has and the sort of infinity that modes have. The second of Spinoza’s distinctions holds between that which has no ends and “that the parts of which, although we have its minimum and max- imum, we are unable to explicate or equate with any number.” This could be interpreted in two different ways. First Spinoza could be distinguishing between either:

.). This procedure moves from

finite (1,2,3,4,

(2A) What is called infinite because it has no ends and whose parts we cannot explain or equate with any number.


(2A ) What is called infinite because it has no ends and whose parts we can equate with a number.


(2B) that the parts of which, although we have its minimum and maximum, we are unable to explicate or equate with any number.

A few further basic concepts 63

It seems that the parallels with (1) suggest that Spinoza has (2A) in mind, not (2A ). In (1), both senses of the infinite are distinguished solely by the fact that one is infinite by force of its essence and the other is not. This is further supported by (3), which I will discuss in a moment, where Spinoza distinguishes between what I can understand and not imagine, and that which I can imagine (independent of whether I can understand it or not). In (3) once again only one distinction is at issue – whether when consid- ering the infinite we are considering something we understand or some- thing we imagine. From these parallels it would seem to follow, then, that (2) also presents one distinction (ends) as opposed to two (ends, numerable). Consequently I conclude that it is most obvious to read (2) as supporting (2A), that the infinite without limits also has no number. 26 This, too, bears on basic metaphysical issues in Spinoza’s philosophy. Spinoza seems to be allowing for the infinite to apply to things that have maximums and minimums and thus to argue that in some sense the infinite is contained in what we consider to be limited or finite. In order to under- stand this we have to ask what Spinoza means by claiming that the infinite is not numerable. We might think he is pointing toward the mathematical

distinction between the counting infinite (1,2,3,

.) and the real infinite

(the number of points in a given interval), but both of these definitions involve number. Spinoza clearly views the different derivative senses of in- finite as referring back, causally, to that which is infinite in its essence or definition. 27 This makes sense when we realize that, for Spinoza, “infinite” is a predicate that applies irrespective of quantity, i.e. infinite power does not mean a numerical scale applied to power which happens to be infinite but rather causal power without end which then may be enumerated by restricting it to a numerical genus. So, in order to get any purchase on the infinite, we have to understand what it means for something to be infinite through its definition. I will return to this issue below. We can use the fact that number does not apply to the absolutely infinite to rule out some sorts of explanations. Spinoza’s definition of God presents God as a being absolutely infinite or a substance with an infinite infinity of attributes each of which expresses the eternal and infinite essence of God. In this definition, Spinoza presents God and God’s absolute infinity in terms of substance and attributes. As also previously alluded to, at least two of these attributes will turn out to be thought and extension. A perennial problem for Spinoza’s interpreters has been whether there are just these

26 As a further support, Spinoza remarks later on in the letter that “it is sufficiently evident that neither Number, nor Measure, nor Time (since they are only aids to the imagination) can be infinite” (iv/58).

27 “[O]thers [are infinite] by the force of the cause in which they inhere,” iv/61.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

two attributes that we experience, each of which is infinite, or an infinity of attributes that we never experience, and which thus appear inaccessible. What sort of infinity characterizes the attributes? The attributes are infi- nite in the sense described in the letter above – that “whose parts we cannot explain or equate with any number” – which they would appear to have to be (since they express the absolutely infinite nature of substance). It is misguided to think of the infinity of attributes as this numerical attribute (thought), and that one (extension), and a bunch more. Thought and ex- tension are attributes, we know this as they satisfy the criterion for being attributes – they express the nature of substance. 28 But, as number is not something which applies to essences (ip8s) and, as the infinity of attributes cannot therefore be a numerical infinite, it makes no sense to view them as this, that, and another – as numerable particulars. 29

28 This is in contradistinction to many pseudo attributes which need to be ruled out, see KV i:47. Of course Spinoza needs a great deal of argumentation to show that they are to be ruled out. The argument, at least the one offered at iip1, is as follows. We know from Book I that modes express God’s nature in a certain and determinate way. Therefore, insofar as they express the essence, they

either are or belong to an attribute. They cannot be the attribute because they are modes, and not necessary, they just express God’s nature in a certain and determinate way, but they require that God’s nature is expressed absolutely in order that it may be expressed determinately. This attribute

is thought.

The proof has two obvious difficulties. First there is no reason to assume that God’s essence would need be expressed as such, but this seems to follow from Spinoza’s version of a plenitude principle (ip33), the fact that everything that can be expressed is, and God’s essence is the paradigm of what can be expressed. A more serious problem is should we infer from the fact that mode X is a determinate thought, that the attribute it belongs to is the attribute of thought? Spinoza also provides an alternate a posteriori proof in the Scholium. Since we can conceive an infinite thinking being, and this infinite being is infinite in its power of thought, we are capable of representing an infinite being through thought alone. Thus thought is capable in itself of representing an infinite being, consequently is infinite, and satisfies the criterion of an attribute. This proof trades on the assumption that we do have a real concept of an infinite being.

29 That this is a historically viable way of thinking about the infinite is apparent from Bruno’s Fifth Dialogue from De la causa, principio e uno as well as Cusa’s De Ludo Globi. Both Cusa and Bruno emphasize the convergence of the maximum and the minimum in the infinite. Bruno additionally strongly emphasizes that number in no way applies to the infinite as this would be a partitioning by

magnitude: “[n]ow, if, in the infinite all these particular things are not differentiated, are not divided into species, it necessarily follows that they have no number” Sidney Greenburg (ed., and trans.), The Infinite in Giordano Bruno, with a Translation of his Dialogue, Concerning the Cause, Principle, and One (New York: King’s Crown Press, 1950), 88. By this Bruno does not just mean that the infinite cannot be numbered. He means that number does not apply. This is a metaphysical as opposed to

a mathematical conception of the infinite, one which post-Cantorians find odd, but that Spinoza

holds a metaphysical conception of the infinite is clear from his definition of the “absolutely infinite”:

“that therefore [is] absolutely infinite, which to its essence pertains whatever essence expresses”. I do not mean to imply by this that Spinoza was directly influenced by Bruno, just that emphasizing the non-numerable character of the infinite was plausible in the seventeenth century. Some, like Hampshire, have viewed Spinoza as a distinctively “mathematical” thinker with mathematics as a paradigm for knowledge (Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza: An Introduction to his Philosophical Thought

(London: Penguin Books, 1987, rev. edn), 15). Given Spinoza’s emphasis on mathematical entities as

A few further basic concepts 65

The consistent position, given Spinoza’s account of the infinite, would seem to be the following. We know that there are at least two attributes. We also know that there are an infinity of attributes, but they are not nu- merable. We can only properly consider the attributes we know, and the non-numerically infinite character of attributes as such. 30 We are misled into thinking we can speak of attributes as forming a numerical series be- cause of our foggy understanding of the infinite, we think that the fact that we know two attributes makes us think three is a legitimate inference on the way to infinity. But it is not, as we are not discussing this sort of infinity. How Spinoza might think about this can be illustrated via his discussion

of contingency and possibility at ivd3 and ivd4:

Ivd3: I call those singular things contingent that while we attend solely to their essence, we discover nothing that necessarily posits their existence, or that necessarily excludes their existence. Ivd4: I call the same singular things possible, insofar as when we attend to the causes from which they ought to have been produced, we are unable to determine whether those causes have been determined to produce them. In ip33s1 I made no distinction between possible and contingent, because there was not the need there to distinguish them accurately.

Contingency describes our lack of access, when attending to the essences of things, to reasons as to why they exist or do not exist. Possibility concerns our lack of access to the causes of things, not to the essence of the thing itself. I say X is contingent when there is no means of knowing by examining


itself whether or not it has a reason for existing or not existing. I say X


possible, on the other hand, when I know what the cause of X must

be, but I do not know whether said causes are determined to produce X.

beings of reason, his great interest in experimental physics and fairly meagre interest in mathematics, and his stock triangle examples, I think this is wishful thinking. For better or worse he is an extremely metaphysical thinker with a deep interest in the instrumental practices of science. 30 In this I am in agreement with Jonathan Bennett, although via a somewhat different argument. See, A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984), 757. I differ with Bennett, however, in that I do not agree that this limits us to two attributes, as two would also be a specific number of attributes, and this could not have a rational cause by ip8c. Thus I do not see Letter LXIV as posing a particular problem. Because we know that there are absolutely infinite attributes does not mean that we need have determinate acquaintance with finite modes in any but two. And there is no logical reason why the fact that we know that there are absolutely infinite attributes need imply that we know what they are. The problem is countenancing this sort of claim with iip7, as iip7 would seem to imply that there must be parallel “modes” in each of the infinity of attributes, and that this must be represented in each and every attribute. But again, if we understand the infinity of attributes as a statement about the absolutely infinite character of the attributes, it is a somewhat less severe problem. I think that in general this interpretation is sufficiently Cusan to be historically plausible and to satisfy the criteria established by Roger Ariew in Ariew, “The Infinite in Spinoza’s Philosophy,” in Edwin Curley and Pierre-Franc¸ois Moreau (eds.), Spinoza: Issues and Directions (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), 1631.


Meaning in Spinoza’s Method

So a triangle is “possible” when I have no acquaintance with its causes.

A triangle is contingent when by attending to the triangle I cannot tell

whether it exists or not in and through itself. From the perspective of ip33 – the powerful metaphysical claim that “Things could have been produced by God in no other way” – the distinc-

tion is entirely unimportant, it is a product of human confusion. But what