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Spinoza's claim that the one substance is infinite


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Spinoza's claim that the one substance is infinite
Date: 13th May 2008 13:26

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your email of 13 May with your University of London essay in response to, 'Spinoza succeeds in showing that there can only be one substance but he does not show that it must be infinite.' Discuss.

I'm glad your Metaphysics exam went well. You seem to have been very lucky with the questions!

Sometimes students do fail to turn up for an exam at the last minute. It's a waste of the examination fee, I agree, but one has to make a judgement call about whether one is ready.

My advice, when my more nervous students talk of postponing for another year is always, 'Don't let yourself get stale.' You think you would be better in a year's time but in reality you might be worse. If you're wound up and ready to go, then go.

Well, you saved me from having to read a 16000 word fellowship dissertation on legal theory which was on my desk for today.

The first question to ask is what error, in Spinoza's view, is Oldenberg making? What he says seems plain common sense. An attribute is defined as what constitutes a substance's 'essence'. Rationality is clearly essential to being a man or woman. Ergo, two men (or women) can have the same essence. What's wrong with that?

The point to make here, in defence of Spinoza, is that 'an' essential property of a thing isn't the same as 'the' essence of that thing. You and I are rational, and we could not cease to be rational without, in an important sense, ceasing to exist. But rationality is not 'the' essence of S or G. The essence of S identifies a unique individual tracing a path through space and time, as does the essence of G. These essences cannot be the same unless S=G, i.e. unless you and I are the same person.

But this isn't going to get you very far towards monism unless you say something about what, in Spinoza's terms, satisfies the conditions for being a 'substance'. S and G, or generally Aristotelian 'substances' do not. OK. So why not just say that Spinoza isn't talking about substance, he's talking about 'schub-stance'. Spinoza is free to define 'schubstance' in any way he wants. He can define it so that there is necessarily only one schubstance. But so what? The result is merely tautological. Toothless monism.

How can Spinoza's monism be given teeth? Or to put the question another way, what is wrong with talking about Aristotelian 'substances'? There has to be something wrong, in order to enable Spinoza to draw the conclusion that his notion of substance (schubstance) is the *only* acceptable definition.

The original question implies that Spinoza has an argument that there is only one substance from which he deduces that this one substance is infinite. However, you present an argument for one substance which proceeds *via* the claim about infinity: '...the more reality or essence a given being has, the more attributes may be attributed to it. Hence a being absolutely infinite must be defined...'. (What Spinoza puts forward as the 'stronger proof' looks like more or less the same thing, '...the more attributes I assign to any being, the more am I compelled to assign it existence.' What's the difference? I don't see any.)

First, what right has Spinoza to talk of 'more' reality? A thing is either real or not. It exists, or it doesn't exist. A dust mote may be easy to ignore but it is no less real for all that. Nor does merely adding attributes give any reason for feeling 'compelled' to believe that something exists. However many attributes one adds to an imagined entity, isn't sufficient to make it real (unless of course you are convinced by the ontological argument).

I do think that Spinoza has a plausible argument for monism, which does not require belief that the one substance is infinite. On my reading, Spinoza is critiquing Descartes rather than Aristotle. When Descartes considers the relation of God the creator to created 'substances' he reaches the rather extraordinary (for us) conclusion that it isn't enough for God to create stuff, or create S or G. God has to continually exercise his creative power in order to maintain things in existence.

At every moment, you can legitimately raise the question, why does F continue to exist? The naive view would be that things contain their own 'existential inertia'. Once a thing IS, it just keeps on going. But why? Why couldn't things just as well blink in and out of existence? or appear for one moment and be gone forever?

The answer we would give is that the continuance of matter and things made of matter is a consequence of the laws of nature. But in that case, if we are looking at an individual so-called 'substance', then its 'essential nature' -- that which makes it what it is -- necessarily goes beyond the thing itself. Take away the laws of nature and the thing itself cannot be.

If individual Aristotelian substances are not separate from nature, if they cannot exist apart from nature then that is tantamount to saying that they ultimately lack the 'self-containedness' necessary for true 'substance'. That's what's wrong with Aristotelian substance. That's why there can only be one substance.

If this is the line of reasoning which was most persuasive for Spinoza, then it really is an extra question why the one substance has to be infinite. We know from physics that space is finite, not infinite, and according to physics there is, ultimately, only one attribute, material existence. There is no room for an infinite 'God' in this picture.

All the best,