Questions of Substance

To treat Spinoza’s understanding of substance and how substance in turn relates to the attributes, God, and the modes, is far beyond the scope of a single post – perhaps even an entire manuscript – but a few suggestions will be offered that follow through on arguments made in previous posts (here and here). As usual, feel free to jump in with a comment (or email me if you prefer), no matter how far after the post date it might be. I’ll no doubt still be dealing with questions of substance and can use all the help I can get!

Before addressing Spinoza’s unique and truly radical understanding of substance it will be helpful to turn to Aristotle’s. Aristotle, like Spinoza, understands substance as that which individuates something and determines what it is to be that thing; that is, the essence of the thing. Substance is also not to be confused with matter, for Aristotle, since as pure potentiality matter can assume contrary forms (see Metaphysics 1050b28, ‘the same thing [as matter] can be potentially both contraries at the same time’), whereas substance determines what it is to be a particular thing and it cannot be other than that thing. Spinoza argues along very similar lines. Substance, as attributive substance, cannot be conceived in any other way than through themselves. This latter point is crucial since the attributes, on Spinoza’s reading, are radically distinct from one another and can be understood solely through themselves and not in their relations, whether relations of compatibility or incompatibility, with any other attributes. The attributes are thus not to be understood in the manner of conceptual determinations, whereby what it is to be this determinate attribute involves a relationship to what it is not. It is indeed true that Spinoza famously claimed that ‘all determination is negation,’ but this form of determination is what characterizes, as an earlier post sketched (here), the actuality of modes rather than the reality of the attributes as substance. Aristotle, by contrast, did understand substance as a conceptual determination, and hence in understanding this determination one can subsequently affirm, for example, that a dog, as dog and unlike a human being, cannot be happy since a dog is not rational. Spinoza’s ontology of substance is therefore a truly affirmative ontology of immanence since substance cannot be conceived by way of anything other than itself (hence by anything transcendent) nor does it entail any negation. It is no wonder then that Deleuze frequently referred to himself as a Spinozist.

But what then is the relationship between substance and the attributes if it is not one of conceptual determination? I’ll make two passes, two arguments, to attempt to answer this question. The first will be Deleuze’s largely Gueroult-inspired answer. The second I’ll attempt to tease out of Spinoza’s texts alone. In Deleuze’s review essay of Gueroult’s first volume on Spinoza’s Ethics, Deleuze argues that what is important about Gueroult’s approach is that it doesn’t begin with the idea of God (God enters the scene with the sixth definition and the ninth, tenth and eleventh propostions). Does this mean that the first six definitions and eight propositions are inessential to Spinoza’s project – mere preliminary work Spinoza simply had to get out of the way before the real work began? For Gueroult and for Deleuze the answer is a definitive ‘no’. When the answer is yes, Deleuze argues, we get

…two misreadings of the attribute: 1) the Kantian illusion that makes attributes forms or concepts of the understanding, and 2) the neo-Platonic vertigo that makes attributes already degraded emanations or manifestations.

It is at this point where the nature of the attributes as conceived through themselves, or the ‘logic of real distinction’ in contrast to the logic of numerical distinction, comes into play. The attributes are indeed really distinct from one another but they are not numerically distinct. We have difference without negation, or with the attributes we have what Deleuze will call a substantive multiplicity:

The logic of real distinction is a logic of purely affirmative difference and without negation. Attributes indeed constitute an irreducible multiplicity, but the whole question is what type of multiplicity. The problem is erased if the substantive ‘multiplicity’ is transformed into two opposed adjectives (multiple attributes and one substance).

We are back with the problematic, with a substantive multiplicity, and thus to understand God as absolutely infinite substance we need also to understand how God is related to the problematic, to substantive multiplicity. We gain a sense of how Deleuze and Guattari understand this relationship when they claim, in A Thousand Plateaus, that God is a lobster, a double articulation. It is all too easy to underestimate the philosophical importance of this claim. We see it at work in the context of Deleuze’s essay on Gueroult, for example, where the first eight propositions correspond to the first articulation; or, as Deleuze puts it, ‘the first eight propositions represent a first series through which we ascend to the differential constitutive elements’ – the attributes. As Deleuze had stressed earlier in the essay, there is ‘no ascension from attributes to substance…to absolutely infinite substance’; rather, there is an ascension through a ‘regressive analytic process’ to the ‘differential constitutive elements’ themselves, to the substantive multiplicity. Then there is the second articulation, the second series found in the 9th-11th propositions ‘through which,’ Deleuze argues, ‘the idea of God integrates these elements and makes clear it can be constituted only by all these elements together.’ The attributes, as a multiplicity of incommensurable and really distinct entities, come to be integrated by the power of causa sui whereby ‘essence is the cause of the existence of substance and the cause of the other things that derive from it.’ To clarify (I hope), the ‘regressive analytic process’ arrives at the attributes as constitutive elements by deriving them from the affirmation of infinite substance as conceived only through itself, showing that any determinate modification or affection of substance is not conceived through itself but through another, and hence the really distinct multiplicity of attributes; and then the integration of these attributive substances constitutes the existence of an absolutely infinite substance – God. Understood in this way, God as the power of causa sui is both the condition that enables the regressive analytic process that leads to a multiplicity of really distinct attributes – first articulation – and the conditioned that is the integration of this multiplicity – second articulation. God is self-caused, as Spinoza argues, or God is a lobster, a double articulation, as Deleuze and Guattari argue.

I now want to make the second pass, the second articulation so to speak, and in doing so hopefully clarify my take on Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza. First, I must admit a fondness for H.F. Hallett’s interpretation of substance as ‘absolutely indeterminate,’ or we might say objectively indetermined to refer to an earlier post. Hallett’s reading is by no means the consensus reading, but there are two important things going for it. First, since God is defined as absolutely infinite (1D6), God can in no way be limited or be in any way determinate, for reasons mentioned above. This is also why God is absolutely infinite rather than infinite in its own kind, as the attributes are, since this would require being a determinate form of infinite and hence a form that could (when understood conceptually by way of the understanding – namely the infinite mode of understanding) be related to what it is not, what is other than it. Our second reason follows from a claim Spinoza makes in a letter to Jelles (letter 50) that anyone who ‘calls God one or single has no true idea of God’ because, as we’ve already noted, all determination is negation. With this in place let’s turn to the scholium to 2P7 – the proposition that sets forth the famous parallelism of ideas and things. In the scholium to this proposition Spinoza says that ‘the thinking substance and the extended substance are one and the same substance, which is now comprehended under this attribute, now under that.’ To clarify by way of an example, Spinoza claims that a ‘circle existing in nature and the idea of the existing circle, which is also in God, are one and the same thing, which is explained through different attributes.’ Despite the two ways of conceiving a circle, as an extended circle actually existing in nature or the idea of this circle, they each reflect ‘one and the same order, or one and the same connection of causes.’ Spinoza then reminds the reader that the idea we have of the circle is only as a mode of thought, a mode caused by another mode, and so on to infinity, and the circle as extension is caused by another mode, the drawing hand, and so on. He concludes this scholium by stating that ‘God is really the cause [of the parallel order of causes] insofar as he consists of infinite attributes. For the present, I cannot explain these matters more clearly.’ Gueroult will argue that this missing explanation is to be found in 2P21S and in 3P2S, but what one finds there is simply a reference to 2P7S and not an explanation of the manner in which God is ‘really the cause’ of the parallel order of mental and physical causes. Needless to say, there has been a large body of literature devoted to trying to make sense of 2P7 and provide the explanation Spinoza doesn’t offer.

It is at this point where Deleuze’s emphasis upon God’s essence being God’s power as self-cause, as double articulation, or what I would call the power of self-ordering becoming, comes in as a possible explanation. As absolutely indeterminate substance, God as the power to exist is, in the first articulation, the power to exist in infinitely many ways, and hence the absolutely indeterminate is drawn into an infinite number of ways of actualizing the absolutely indeterminate – that is, the multiplicity of attributes that are neither one nor multiple. In the second articulation these ways are actualized as a series of infinite causation, whereby determinate existents require the existence of an other determinant existent, and so on – for example, the series of the modes of thought and the series of the modes of extension.

To bring this already long post to an end I want briefly to tie some of the points to what was said in earlier posts by addressing a few questions (I’m not being exhaustive here of course):

  • Is God a being, or can we read Heidegger’s ontological difference into Spinoza   whereby God is the Being that is not to be confused with any beings?

Put bluntly, no, God is a being. However, as the double articulation makes clear, coupled with Hallett’s reading of Spinoza, God is a being whose essence is the power to exist (see 1P11S), and this power is absolutely indeterminate. This is in sharp contrast to Aristotle for whom essence is not an absolutely indeterminate power to exist but rather a determinate form of existence. There is no place for causa sui in Aristotle’s thought. Therefore, while God is the singular and unique being whose essence entails ‘an absolutely infinite power of existing,’ this power of existing, as Deleuze notes, is neither predetermined by ideas or models in the understanding nor is it a power separate and distinct from ways of existing, from attributive substances. God’s being contains no other reality than the attributes, and yet God’s being exceeds our everyday understanding of beings insofar as it consists of an infinite number of attributes while we are only aware of two (thought and extension). This brings me to the second question.

  • Is God the anhypothetical absolute that serves as the foundation for Spinoza’s deductive method (his Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata)?

Yes, but here too the axiomatic method that begins with God as an anhypothetical absolute supervenes upon the regressive analytic that resulted in a multiplicity of attributes that are neither one nor multiple. To restate this in earlier terms, the second articulation that gives us God as an integration of the multiplicity of attributes does indeed give us a foundation for the axiomatic method, but since it is a foundation that supervenes upon the problematic and objectively indeterminate multiplicity of attributes, this axiomatic method that follows will be both necessary for and insufficient to the task of determining the objectively indetermined (or the absolutely indeterminate). To restate this point we could take the title of this post, questions of substance. A question of substance is not exhausted by the answers it receives – these answers supervene upon the question, and hence they are not arbitrary answers, but they do so without eliminating the question, the problematic, itself. And finally,

  • What is the role of the common notions?

A full answer to this question would entail addressing Spinoza’s three kinds of knowledge (and Deleuze’s essay “Spinoza and the three ‘Ethics’” if we are to continue to track his reading of Spinoza), but it is brought up at a crucial point early on in the Ethics, in the long scholia of 1P8 (“Every substance is necessarily infinite”). Spinoza argues in reference to 1P7 (‘It pertains to the nature of substance to exist”) that ‘if men would attend to the 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 the common notions.’ If we would only attend to the nature of substance, but we don’t! Instead, we attend to the random encounters of our everyday lives, to the casual relations between modes and the haphazard patterns of our experiences. In short, we are too focused upon the singular and determinate aspects of our particular lives to ‘attend to the nature of substance’ itself. It was for a very similar reason that Spinoza abandoned the TIE, as the previous post argued, when Spinoza ‘discovers and invents’ the common notions. Recalling that the ethical project of TIE was to acquire an eternal knowledge by way of the knowledge of our determinate minds and any singular, determinate truth, we can now see why this failed and why the common notions was seen as key to a solution. Any effort to attain knowledge of the eternal based upon the axiomatic and determinate alone will fail precisely because it supervenes upon the problematic multiplicity of attributes. One cannot axiomatically deduce an answer to a question of substance! With the common notions in hand, however, the first kind of knowledge, the determinate and singular knowledge of our bodily lives in the world (the knowledge that keeps us from seeing that ‘it pertains to the nature of substance to exist’) is drawn into a problematic common knowledge (second kind of knowledge) that then comes to be actualized as the third kind of knowledge, the knowledge that finally releases us from things which are ‘liable to many variations and which we can never fully possess.’ Much more is needed here, I realize, but hopefully the general idea of how this would go is clear enough.


7 responses to “Questions of Substance

  • Eternity and Duration in Spinoza | Aberrant Monism

    […] restate this drawing from earlier posts, the human Mind that is eternal is not the determinate, identifiable mind, but rather the immanent […]

  • antivigilante

    I am the kind of fool who wants to put the mechanics back into Quantum Mechanics and this quite article encourages my delinquent behavior.

    The part about God being a lobster being a double articulation is so incredibly important that I had to use the word being twice in this sentence. What it comes down to is that if I say i have 5 you say 5 what. Quantization needs a scale, and by definition a scale is a measurement against a reference metric. So QM actually requires 2 scales of indeterminate quantization. One is the scale at which any one object can interact with another. The other is the scale that allows arrangement around a radius.

  • Jeffrey Bell

    To restate what you’re saying along the lines I was thinking, there is quantification and measurement that is relative to a scale and then there is the indeterminate, Heisenberg’s uncertainty or Godel’s incompleteness which is not to be confused with a technical limitation to measure but with a nondenumerable, unmeasurable inseparable from what is and can be measured. This brings be back to double articulation and lobsters.

  • Anti Vigilante

    I would only take it one more step. We don’t know what 5 meters are in their own sake. We don’t know know what a meter is in its own sake. We are unable to define perfectly what 5 meters are since they are related in substance (made of) this undefined thing called a meter.

    Two static (declared) indeterminate notions and one dynamic (dependent) indeterminate notion. What we do know is what 5 is. We of course want 5 to be useful because it is the one thing we can place bets on. For 5 to be useful it must be applied to some indeterminate notion. On the other side of the coin, to be able to do things we must organize what we can see but cannot define. Heisenberg’s principle requires a given change to be a tradeoff between where it is and how quickly it is changing. Entanglement I’m not completely sold on as it’s a menagerie of contextual Gordian knots. Popular science authors entertain, but they don’t explain very well.

    I sometimes wonder whether God made the universe in his laboratory or in his basement. Perhaps in the process of simulating the practice system He had the epiphany that the simulation was more expressive and stable than the system upon which laws were imposed and enforced. Not only that but the simulation was also capable of supporting the needs of the universe defined by laws. So He decided to revise his design into something nearly equal to Himself, both wild and orderly, something we call life, the edge of order and chaos. And maybe that’s what drove the Lightbringer over the edge. But now I’m stepping in silly.

  • Anti Vigilante

    What I’m suggesting is that even if we did know what a meter was, and we do know what 5 is, 5 meters is a unit of scale as well and to know is to prove and there we again need another reference point independent of the one for 1 meter otherwise we wouldn’t have a proof but instead a tautology. So it happens that by some miracle the number 5 may some day prove the pudding that both 1 meter and 5 meters are made of. But until then we should appreciate the power of applying determinate notions to indeterminate ones, because the Hall of Mirrors is coming down and those who know have to put their foot down.

  • Spinoza or Leibniz | Aberrant Monism

    […] of reconciling the finite with the infinite. For Spinoza, as I discussed in earlier posts (here, here, and here), this emerges as a decidedly ethical problem for individuals. More precisely, Spinoza […]

  • iPhones and God | Aberrant Monism

    […] from the eternal necessity of God’s nature.’ In other words, and as I argue in earlier posts (here and here), the attributes constitute the problematic multiplicity which constitutes the nature of […]

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