Spinoza’s Eternal Substance


First off, is it just me, or doesn’t Ryan Gosling bear a striking resemblance to Spinoza?…

So anyway, reading Spinoza: The Letters (Shirley et al), I find that Spinoza implies (no where in these letters does he spell it out) that everything we experience in our day-to-day to world has been caused by something else. And each cause must have been, in turn, caused by something else, and that cause actually the effect of a still more previous cause… and so on… back through the long chain of events of the Universe… Until at last, we get to the First Cause, or the Uncaused Causer (these are my terms, not his). This Uncaused Causer, Spinoza calls Substance.

To avoid confusion as to what Spinoza says versus what I believe Spinoza say (or wants to say or might would have said)– I will put into bold print only his ideas.

Substance is the first wheel that turned in the vast gearwork of the Universe, and as such it is, for Spinoza, “Necessary.” In other words, if there had been no Substance, this Universe would not have been. This Cosmos owes its very existence to the Substance. Therefore, in that sense, Substance is very, very necessary.

Spinoza goes on to say that what is Necessary can not be divided. His reasoning is as follows: If something is divided, there are two possible outcomes: 1) it divides into things sharing in its identity or nature, or 2) it divides into things different from its nature.

If the Necessary thing divides into things like itself, then these things would also be Necessary– and yet, again we must ask the question: How “necessary” are they if everything went along fine without them?

I lost the thread of Spinoza’s thought when it came to the second sort of division (when the Necessary thing divides into things unlike itself), but I think the implication is that the Necessary thing will have then ceased to exist, so we can suppose it’s not all that Necessary after all.

A point to be made here: when Spinoza uses “Necessary” like this, he means eternally Necessary, not Necessary in a paltry, part of a longer chain of events and so temporarily necessary.

Establishing, then, that Substance is Necessary, Spinoza next contends that what is Necessary must also be Eternal. The reasoning is simple enough: if something “Necessary” at anytime ceases to exist –and yet the Universe keeps-on ticking anyway– well then, exactly how “necessary” could Necessary be?

Thusly proving to his satisfaction that the primary impetus of the Universe is a Substance that is Eternal and Necessary and Indivisible, Spinoza next proclaims that this Substance is Pure. By this he means that Substance is made-up of no component parts. As Spinoza writes Blydenburgh in January 1665: “Component parts would have to be prior to that which they compose”— and since Substance is Eternal, then there would have been no parts pre-dating Substance with which to construct it. “Substance cannot be produced,” Spinoza stated to Oldenburg in September 1661.

One important conclusion Spinoza draws when he considers the lack of component parts in Substance is that Substance, as he tells Lodewijk Meyer, must therefore be all “of the same nature.” Of course, at this level of abstraction, I’m not sure if we can speak intelligently whatsoever about the “nature” of Substance… “nature” meaning WHAT exactly?

Lastly, the Eternal Substance, Spinoza tells John Hudde in April 1666 is Perfect. Anything is “Perfect” that “exists by its own sufficiency and force,” which Substance oh so assuredly does, according to Spinoza. Seems to me that Eternal, Perfect, Necessary… these all would be nearly synonymous in a Spinozan Glossary, since all their definitions are based on the described entity’s lack of dependence on anything else.

To summarize what I’ve written so far about Spinozan thought concerning the Universe:

Spinoza believes that the underlying cause and reality of the Universe is the Substance, and that the Substance is Primary, Pure, Perfect, Eternal, Indivisible, and Necessary.

Spinoza says a few other choice things about this Eternal Substance, but I find them meaningless. First, he informs Oldenburg in September 1661 that it is of Substance’s “Essence to exist.” Now, whenever a philosopher starts talking about “Essence,” I usually start running towards the exits. I have never had a discussion in my life about “Essence” that helped me better understand my world in a real and practical way, and in fact, I feel that any and all talk about “Essence” is counter-productive to the search for real Meaning or Truth, and has led many a brilliant philosopher down a blind alley.

Additional to his talk about “Essence,” Spinoza tells Oldenburg that “Substance must be Infinite or supremely Perfect in its kind.”

Why must Substance be infinite?  Spinoza declares that when something is Necessary, it can be determined by nothing else and therefore no something can exist outside the bounds of the Necessary thing.  And, since Substance is everywhere that there is something, Substance is, according to Spinoza, Infinite.

A few final points about this proclamation that “Substance must be Infinite or Supremely Perfect in its kind”:

1) I’m not sure what the “or” means here– Substance must be either Infinite or Perfect? Or is he simply restating the meaning of “Infinite,” using “Perfect” appositionally– as a synonymous re-statement?  Or, translation could be part of the problem.

2) What does Spinoza here mean by “supremely” perfect? How can something be more perfect than perfect? Are we to believe that there are different degrees of perfection? If so, by what measurements? If one thing is “supremely perfect”– does this mean that there are things which are “inadequately perfect” or “imperfectly perfect?”

And 3) What in blazes does Spinoza mean by “in its kind?” These last words are just a jumble of letters to me.

— — —

Spinoza believes that we humans cannot grasp the Eternal Substance via our normal senses. After all, the true underlying Substance can neither be smelt nor tasted nor heard nor even directly seen or felt.

Nor can we understand Substance through our Imagination, for our Imaginations are only good for thinking about things which we can picture in symbols and images. There is no way for us to conjure an adequate image of “Eternal Substance.”

Luckily for us, Spinoza believes that besides our Senses and our Imagination, there exists a third part to our psyche (psyche is my term, not his) that he calls the Intellect. Writing to Lodewijk Meyer, Spinoza says that although Substance “can in no way be apprehended by the Imagination,” the Intellect CAN grasp the concept of it.

Personally, I have to admit that my particular Intellect doesn’t have a freakin’ clue about this Eternal Substance thing. Perhaps Spinoza merely means that, using the Intellect, we can at least entertain concepts, however vaguely, of things such as Eternity and of an Uncaused Causer– although, I have my doubts as to how much we can really comprehend such things– whatever part of our mind we are using.

To tell the truth, In his letters Spinoza does not describe the Intellect very well at all. He never explicitly labels it “Reason,” but I believe that Reason is essentially what Spinoza has in mind here.

Writing to Pieter Ballius in July 1664, Spinoza says that the Intellect is where humans link together their “demonstrations”– which makes it sound as if he is speaking of logical argumentation. To Bouwmeester in June of 1666, Spinoza writes that the Intellect is where humans grasp “true ideas” (whatever those are– maybe ideas about triangles and such?). And in a letter to Meyer, Spinoza contends that the Intellect is where “we apprehend the Thing-As-It-Is-In-Itself.” This may be where Kant got his expression of “the Thing-In-Itself” that proved so important in Kantian philosophy, but I actually don’t know the history of this expression, and there very well could be a source older than Spinoza from which both great thinkers drew this expression. [I do know from some Ernst Mach that I’m reading that Mach thought this “thing-in-itself” stuff was an “absurdity.].

Spinoza believed that human Intellect can experience “clear and distinct perceptions” which “depend only on our nature” and which can “acknowledge no other cause outside us.”

First off, I don’t like the word “perception” here, and have to think it a quirk of translation– for I know that if Spinoza was anything, he was very precise about his word choices.

Secondly, I don’t think Spinoza’s correct when he says that our clearest perceptions come from our own nature and not from anything outside of us– for even our most basic concepts appear to me to be tightly intertwined with our experiences. For example, even logical notions such as “two plus two equals four” or “every triangle has three sides” or “events occur in Time” are not without their influence from the world “outside” of us.

And Spinoza goes even farther here… In a letter to Boxel in September 1674, Spinoza claims that our Intellect possesses a clear and distinct idea of God (!). Speaking for myself, I find this patently untrue. I have only the foggiest notion of God– and my suspicion is that, dense as I am, mine is not the only Intellect possessing a less than clear and distinct idea of God.

Now, I’ve purposely chosen to approach Spinoza sideways here… What I haven’t told you yet is that whenever Spinoza speaks of the Eternal Substance, he is speaking of God. That’s right. Everything above that I’ve written concerning the Eternal Substance goes equally for God, for to Spinoza, Substance and God are the one and same thing. Spinoza’s philosophy today– and in his own day– was quite infamous for this equivalence.

I actually think Spinoza’s philosophy is a little less foggy to our understanding if we think of him as explaining the nature of the Universe, and leave, for the moment, God to the side. Don’t worry. It all ties together in the end.

In my next post, I hope to talk about things that the human mind CAN perceive according to Spinoza.

—–   —–   —–

Other Posts on SPINOZA from Hammering Shield:

On Walking The Path Of Truth With Spinoza

Some Of Spinoza’s More Heretical Notions

Spinoza’s God (Don’t Worry, He’s Not Angry)

Spinoza’s Evil

Free Will And The Art Of The Spinozan Spin

How Reading Spinoza Is Like An Acid Trip

The Modes, Attributes, and Imagination Of Baruch Spinoza

So Did Spinoza Not KNOW He Was An Atheist?


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