The Modes, Attributes, And Imagination Of Baruch Spinoza


So, as I said (I think) in the previous post, humans cannot grasp directly the Eternal Substance that is the cause and underlying reality of the Universe.

What humans CAN perceive of the Eternal Substance are certain characteristics that our minds “attribute” to it, says Spinoza. By these “Attributes” we can indirectly and very incompletely perceive Substance.

In the correspondence collected in SPINOZA: The Letters (Shirley et al), Spinoza does not say much of value about these Attributes. He claims to know that the Eternal Substance manifests itself in infinite Attributes. Why this must be so, I admit, I couldn’t follow.

The most concrete thing Spinoza says about Attributes is that each stands in need of no other Attribute to exist: they are “Perfect” (Spinoza’s specific definition of Perfection was discussed in the previous post).

Spinoza is not one for giving lots of helpful examples, but here he actually does: he says that Extension (some thing’s physical dimensions) is an Attribute, but that Motion is not since it relies on the Attribute of Extension [or dimension] for its existence.

There’s some silliness about how something is more real the more Attributes it possesses, but I find this additional conjecture unhelpful and probably untrue. Spinoza expresses the connection between Attribute-accumulation and Reality in two ways in the letters…

The first way is more profound, and thus, more ridiculous: “The more Reality or Being an entity has, the more Attributes are to be attributed to it.” But how can something be more real than something else that is also real? It reminds of the old joke about someone being “a little bit pregnant.” Existence, and pregnancy, are, of an instance, basically either/or concepts, are they not?

Spinoza’s second statement on Attribute-accumulation and Reality is this: “The more Attributes I attribute to an entity, the more Existence I am bound to attribute to it. That is, the more I conceive it as truly existent.” This is a backwards restatement of the former pronouncement, but at least it’s a little more palatable since it is basically a statement of psychology, not of true Reality. Nevertheless, this statement may bring as much harm as good to those stalking for Truth, for I think it would be an error to consider odor-producing molecules –entities unperceived except by the single sense of smell– as less real than, say, a bowl of Rice Krispies which we can see and touch and taste and hear. And is light any less real than a smell– or perhaps it is more real? Or are neither rainbows nor birdsong as real as a baloney sandwich?

Using only Spinoza’s letters as my guide, I cannot say whether Spinoza actually feels that something with more Attributes truly is “more real,” or if he just believes that it feels more real to us. Either way, it seems to qualify as “bad philosophy”– that is, statements that are more confusing than elucidating, and which are as prone to lead us into error as toward truth.

Spinoza also discusses something he calls “Modes.” Perhaps Spinoza makes very clear in other works the distinction between Attributes and Modes, but in the letters, the difference between the two manifestations of Substance is a blur.

The main distinction between the two appears to be this: Attributes need nothing else (besides the underlying Substance) to exist. Modes, on the other hand, are any and all things that rely on at least one other entity to define them or give them existence. So, using the example from earlier, perhaps motion would be a Mode– I’m not really sure since, in the letters, Spinoza doesn’t give much by way of concrete examples as to what are Modes and what are not Modes.

Spinoza does write that Substance is prior to Modes, and that Modes cannot exist without Substance. But I feel the same could be said of Attributes.

Spinoza is clear that Modes have Duration– in other words, they are not eternal. To Lodewijk Meyer, Spinoza describes Modes as the affecting parts (“Affections”) of Substance. He also seems to be referring to Modes by another name when he speaks of “Accidents.” Spinoza says that nothing really exists beyond Substance and its Accidents. One may ask: What happened to Attributes? My answer is: I haven’t the foggiest. My only guess is that Spinoza here is grouping Attributes under Substance.

To Meyer, Spinoza also writes of Modes that “even when they exist, we can conceive them as not existing”— which I take to mean that Modes are a bit of a mirage– they are not the true picture of the underlying Substance, but some extremely fractional glimpse of it.

It is Modes, says Spinoza, that we humans can perceive and classify with our Senses and Imagination, and these classifications give rise to our concepts of Quantity, Measure, and Time. When it comes to measuring (be it size or weight or time or whatever), Spinoza says that such divisions are “nothing other than modes of thinking, or rather modes of imagining.” Dividing, counting, measuring– these are just ways in which we (idiosyncratically?) experience our world. I get the impression Kant knew his Spinoza.

My interpretation of Spinoza is that he believes that the human Imagination (as opposed to the Intellect) is used to grasp the multiplicities of the surface of the Eternal Substance, but not the Substance itself, which only our Intellect can (somewhat?) conceive (I discussed the Spinoza’s concept of “Intellect” in the previous post). Our Imagination can only apprehend things which can be grouped into Class and Quantity, but the Eternal Substance is beyond Class, thus beyond Quantity– and thus beyond the scope of the Imagination.

Why is beyond Class “thus beyond Quantity?” Because Spinoza believes that to count things, we must perceive them as a series contained within the same “Class” of whatever we are counting. I can play ball here with Spinoza, though perhaps not enthusiastically, for I can imagine counting apples and oranges– or apples and sunspots for that matter– and thinking of them in some vague way as at least sharing the unity of units.

The Imagination, says Spinoza, understands what it does by using memories and symbols such as words and pictures (image-ination). In truth, Spinoza considers the ideas of the Imagination false, or at least doubtful, whereas what we grasp with the Intellect is true.

More on Spinozan philosophy to come…

—–   —–   —–

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

Spinoza’s Eternal Substance

So Did Spinoza Not KNOW He Was An Atheist?


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