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Pierfrancesco Basile - Russel on Spinoza's Substance Monism

Pierfrancesco Basile - Russel on Spinoza's Substance Monism

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Russell on Spinoza
s Substance Monism
Pierfrancesco Basile
Published online: 8 December 2011
#
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011
Abstract
Russell
s critique of substance monism is an ideal starting point fromwhich to understand some main concepts in Spinoza 
s difficult metaphysics. This paper provides an in-depth examination of Spinoza 
s proof that only one substanceexists. On this basis, it rejects Russell
s interpretation of Spinoza 
s theory of realityas founded upon the logical doctrine that all propositions consist of a predicate and a subject. An alternative interpretation is offered: Spinoza 
s substance is not a bearer of properties, as Russell implied, but an eternally active, self-actualizing creative power. Eventually, Spinoza the Monist and Russell the Pluralist are at one in holdingthat process and activity rather than enduring things are the most fundamentalrealities.
Keywords
Russell.Spinoza .Substance.Monism.Attribute.Power It was Plato in his later mood who put forward the suggestion,
and I hold that the definition of being is simply power.
”— 
A. N. Whitehead (1933:129)
1 Introduction
Bertrand Russell greatly admired Spinoza, whose philosophy he praised as a nobleattempt at liberating men from the slavery of fears and anxieties, passionsincompatible with every kind of wisdom (Russell1945: 578
 – 
580). Still, he hadsignificant reservations about the way the Dutch thinker of Jewish origins hadachieved his grand metaphysical conclusion of the unity of all things.
Spinoza,
hewrote,
is in many ways one of the greatest of philosophers, but his greatness israther ethical than metaphysical
(Russell1927a : 249). Given that Spinoza 
s ethics
Int Ontology Metaphysics (2012) 13:27
 – 
41DOI 10.1007/s12133-011-0090-6P. Basile (
*
)Department of Philosophy, University of Bern, Längassstrasse 49a, 3000-9 Bern, Switzerlande-mail: pierfrancesco.basile@philo.unibe.ch
 
can hardly be divorced from his metaphysics (one needs to understand one
s place inthe universe to lead a genuinely virtuous life), this is already a highly suspiciousclaim. But what precisely is wrong with Spinoza 
s metaphysics?
2 The Turn to Process: Russell
s Critique of Spinoza
From the time of his research in early modern philosophy that culminated in
ACritical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibni
(1900) to the very end of hiscareer, Russell argues that traditional systems are flawed at a deep logical level. If one holds the logical theory that all propositions ascribe a predicate to a subject,one will be led to deny that relations possess any independent logical status. Thecounterpart of the logical theory that all propositions are subject 
 – 
 predicate in formis the metaphysical view that substances are bearers of properties. On this view,there is no place for relations at a basic metaphysical level.
The subject 
 – 
 predicatelogic, which all such philosophers in the past assumed, either ignores relationsaltogether, or produces fallacious arguments to prove that relations are unreal.
(Russell1945: 595) Thus, the only options open to a philosopher working with theconcept of substance are either a universe of mutually isolated substances or a single substance of which everything else is a property. These alternatives havefound their paradigmatic formulations in Leibniz
s theory of monads and inSpinoza 
s substance monism:It is a common opinion
 — 
often held unconsciously, and employed in argument,even by those who do not explicitly advocate it 
 — 
that all propositions,ultimately, consist of a subject and a predicate. When this opinion isconfronted by a relational proposition, it has two ways of dealing with it, of which one might be called monadistic, the other monistic
. Of these views,the first is represented by Leibniz and (on the whole) by Lotze, the second bySpinoza and Mr. Bradley. (Russell1903: 221; cf. also Russell1956: 324) As Russell views things, these competing systems provide
reductio ad absurdum
of traditional subject 
 – 
 predicate logic: the doctrine that all propositionsascribe a predicate to a subject cannot be true, if it compels us to hold one of twoequally incredible theories. This is just part of Russell
s argument, however, for intruth, Spinoza monism is the only legitimate outcome of the theory that all propositions are subject 
 – 
 predicate in form. Leibniz
s whole metaphysics can besummarized in the statement 
There are many monads.
Where is the subject here?If Leibniz had further developed the implications of the subject 
 – 
 predicate theory of  proposition, he would have seen that the entire world of monads must be anadjective of an underlying subject. Hence, Leibniz
s theory of monads collapses intoSpinoza 
s substance monism (Russell1945: 595); as against this, Russell observes:
Pluralism is the view of science and common sense, and is therefore to be acceptedif the arguments against it are not conclusive. For my part, I have no doubt whatever that it is the true view, and that monism is derived from a faulty logic inspired bymysticism.
(Russell1927a : 264) This leaves much to be desired as an argument (among other things, science and common sense do not appear to be alwaysconsistent with one another), yet Russell is satisfied by these brief remarks; in his
28 P. Basile
 
view, they bring his critique of the subject 
 – 
 predicate theory of proposition to successful end.In attacking the subject 
 – 
 predicate theory of proposition, Russell is also making animportant ontological point. It is the very notion of substance as
bearer of   properties
(the metaphysical counterpart of the logical notion of 
subject of   predication
) that needs to be abandoned:Spinoza, we may say, had shown that the actual world could not be explained by means of one substance; Leibniz showed that it could not be explained bymeans of many substances. It became necessary, therefore, to base metaphysicson a notion other than that of substance
 — 
a task not yet accomplished. (Russell1900: 126)This is not the sole attack upon the concept of substance one finds inRussell
s writings. The concept is also said to be inconsistent with thefundamental ontology of modern science:
The concept of substance, uponwhich Spinoza relies,
he says in
A History of Western Philosophy
,
is one whichneither science nor philosophy can nowadays accept 
(Russell1945: 578).Russell
s point here is that substances have been traditionally conceived as bearersof properties. And since a substance
s properties come and go in a world of changing things, a substance has been identified with
that which remains identical through change
. In this way, traditional metaphysics has explained all changes byreference to the concept of an enduring, permanent substratum. But contemporaryscience has now reversed this traditional explanatory order, making permanencesubordinate to process:[T]he notion of substance, at any rate in any sense involving permanence, must  be shut out from our thoughts if we are to achieve a philosophy in any wayadequate
to modern physics. Modern physics, both in the theory of relativityand in the Heisenberg-Schrödinger theories of atomic structure, has reduced
matter 
to a system of events, each of which lasts for a very short time. Totreat an electron or a proton as a single entity has become as wrong-headed asit would be to treat the population of London and New York as a single entity.(Russell1927a : 254)Although the point is not explicitly developed by Russell, the analogy withthe population of London and New York nicely illustrates his novel ontologicalapproach. In a statement such as
The population of New York has increased inthe last five years
one can hardly identify a subject (
The population
) that exists prior to its properties. The reality denoted by
The population of NewYork 
depends for its existence upon its citizens. There is some elasticity to thekind of dependence that is here at stake, for individual citizens die and new onesare born; still, this does not prevent us from conceiving of 
The population of  New York 
as a kind of entity that preserves its identity through change (we saythat a population
grows,
not that it is replaced by another when new members join in). This shows that there are alternative ways of explaining permanenceamid change than substance
 – 
 property ontology. According to Russell, modernscience has understood that the ontological model adequate for societies can beextended to a larger realm of natural phenomena. Philosophers (and metaphy-
Russell on Spinoza 
s Substance Monism 29

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