Rambling Intro (As Usual)
Ok, out with the Descartes, and in with the Spinoza. I want to see if I can start to break down a little bit of Spinoza’s metaphysics a) to see if I understand it and b) to help satiate my readers’ voracious appetite for 17th Century metaphysics. As usual I will begin with a couple of random tangents.
I’ll begin with the word “metaphysics”. As I was writing my little intro I realized that for most people outside of philosophy “metaphysics” means something completely different from what is meant in philosophy. The origin of the world come from a book Aristotle wrote “Ta meta ta physica” meaning “after the physics”. It is speculated that the book was so titled because it was meant to be read after his students had mastered the book “Physica”. Interestingly metaphysics as it is used in today’s vernacular is more akin to its meaning in the 17th Century and the medieval period. But more on that later, lets return to what philosophers mean. They mean “the study of the underlying nature of the physical world”. Metaphysics seeks to ask questions about “ultimate reality”.
Back in the day, before we had our modern atomic theory of matter there was no empirical way to examine the ultimate nature of “things”. The only resource was rational reflection. Descartes, for example, in his Meditations concluded that everything is ultimately made of one of 2 types of substance: “Mind” and “Booty”. Many of the issues that arose in the pre-atomic era have left the realm of speculative philosophy and are now studied in the realm of physics (until the late 19th Century– “natural philosophy”). To some people this means that metaphysics is dead but there are many questions about ultimate reality that can’t be known empirically (through scientific investigation), such as the nature of time and space, the nature of causation, the nature of mental properties, the nature of identity, and the metaphysical/ontological status of concepts (such as numbers). I’m not going to talk about those here, first, because I know very little about it and second, my main concern is Spinoza’s metaphysics.
A Little About Spinoza
Most importantly Spinoza was a Jew, which meant he had horns and was involved in plots to take over the world. Surprisingly, there were other important things about Spinoza too. His lineage was to the Jewish community in Spain, which at the time had been under the noble Inquisition for over 100 years (I still don’t understand why people insist on separating Church and State…). The Jews were given a “choice”, they could convert to Catholicism, leave Spain (but you couldn’t bring any of your possessions or gold), or die the death. Spinoza’s family oddly chose to leave Spain and move to Portugal where they stayed for a short period of time until the same policies were enacted (I really can’t figure out why people get so up tight about wanting Church and State to be separate). Finally, they moved to Amsterdam where Jews were more or less allowed to practice freely. Spinoza was born in Amsterdam.
Understandably the Jewish community in Amsterdam was quite strict. They were trying to resurrect a culture that had been virtually destroyed over the last 100 years or more; there wasn’t much tolerance for alternative views to the orthodoxy of the community (irony?). Anyway, Spinoza being the smart guy he was, after studying at the rabbinical school, had difficulty reconciling all the contradictions and superstition in the Bible.
At age 23 he was excommunicated from the community. Stop. Think about that for a second. The elders of the community gave him many opportunities to recant but he chose to stick to his (rational) ideas. Just as a Jew in Spain could not, on a dime, dismiss all his beliefs to become Catholic, Spinoza could not “unbelieve” what he believed; he could not even pretend to. Being excommunicated was no small matter in those days. Community was everything. It meant he was forever banished from the community in which he had been raised, he had to give up his business (lens crafter), and his friends and family were never allowed to talk to him…ever! EVER! He had to start life all over again, alone. Imagine giving all that up at 23 for an idea. Mind. Blasting.
Spinoza vs Descartes
Spinoza was a student of Descartes’ philosophy and even published a book about Cartesian philosophy. When he published his book on Descartes, he made it clear that he was only explaining Descartes’ philosophy and that the work did not represent his own ideas. Spinoza was aware that his own ideas would be too radical for the Calvinist authorities. Spinoza wanted to apply rationalism beyond the point of Descartes’ Dualist conclusion; he wanted Monism. Spinoza’s method was to apply Descartes’ own premises and method to his Dualist conclusion to show that it was premature to stop at “Mind” and “Boogy” as the two ultimate substances of reality. Instead, Spinoza concluded that there is only one substance and it has an infinite number of attributes, of which Mind and Booty are only two.
Before we look at Spinoza’s arguments lets do a quick review of key terms as they are used in the context of metaphysics. Lets begin with “substance“. Substance is the thing out of which all reality is composed. Another way to look at it is Substances have properties but aren’t properties of some other thing. Imagine yourself back in the pre-atomic era and you’re teaching a Cartesian philosophy class (Go ahead! Imagine!). You’re discussing properties, such as texture, colour, taste, sound, mental properties and so on. Some annoying kid in your class keeps asking, “but were do they come from?’. You reply, “well, physical properties come from extension and mental properties come from thought. That annoying kid then asks, “but where do extension and thought come from”? To which you reply “from Body and Mind”. “But were do Body and Mind come from?” he whines. If you are a Cartesian philosopher you tell him that that’s the end of the line for his questions. The regress ends there–Body and Mind just exist; they are ultimate reality, all properties inhere in one of those 2 substances. (Well…actually, God creates and sustains them, but we won’t complicate things right now.)
The next important term is “attribute“. An attribute is a) the principle property common to all finite things composed of one of the 2 types of substance. For instance the attribute belonging to Body is extension. Anything that is a body must be extended, otherwise it is not a body. Of course the attribute of Mind is thought. Attributes have 2 functions for our purposes: First we can identify what type of substance we are talking about if we know its principle attribute. For example, if I know something is extended then it follows that the something is comprised of the substance “Body”. The second function of an attribute is it is that thing through which modes come about.
In a way, modes are to attributes as attributes are to substance. Modes arise out of primary attributes. A mode is a property of a substance that isn’t necessary for it’s existence. Think of them as secondary properties. For example, you can have an extended body without colour, but you can’t have a body without extension. Also, as I have said, secondary properties/modes arise out of primary attributes. A body will be perceived as having a certain colour depending on the arrangement of its extension (surface qualities). In other words, modes depend on primary attributes for their existence.
To summarize, we can think of Substances, primary attributes, and modes as existing in a hierarchical structure with modes relying on primary attributes for their existence; primary attributes relying on Substance for their existence, and Substances just are (or rely on God for existence, which we’ll address later).
Oh no, it’s already 3am. I’ll have to get into the meat of the argument tomorrow. Good night!