Randolph Thompson Dible II Metaphysics: Professor James Corrigan October, 2008 Descartes and Spinoza
“The seeker after truth must, once in the course of his life, doubt everything, as far as is possible.” – Rene Descartes, Principles of Philosophy
This radical, ‘methodological doubt’or Cartesian skepticism is a philosophical tool to get at the ultimate truth. What it allows for is the discernment of the certain in the doubtable. When applied as rigorously as Descartes does in the propositions following that first one, and in their commentaries, we have to doubt all but one thing, the thinking thing. This is a very profound epistemological and metaphysical conclusion. It is more profound than the truth of his arguments for the possibility of doubting our sense experience1, even mathematical demonstrations2. It is the indubitable nature of this conclusion that has granted Descartes the title of “father of modern philosophy”. His infamous substance-dualism of mind and matter (‘thinking substance’ and ‘corporeal substance’) does not strictly follow from this profound conclusion, nor does the further evolution of ‘substances’ which ‘pertain to’ the existence of other minds and things. Rather, Descartes admits that only one entity qualifies as “a thing which exists in such a way as to depend on no other
Proposition 4 Proposition 5
thing for its existence”3. The confusion arises from the use of the word ‘substance’ where he later clarifies4 he means ‘modes’ inherent in substance. Inherent in this definition of substance we find that such an entity must be God, at least according to Aristotle, Descartes, and Spinoza. How naïve! I have other ideas in my mind, which I will briefly explain after these dead philosophers are respectfully treated. But Descartes especially insists upon the existence of God by a different route, that of logical inference, in his demonstration (‘valid inference’) by the notion of ‘necessary existence’ we have in our concept of God5, and by the priority of the production of perfection6. In this final analysis, Descartes is found to have an, shall I say, interesting angle on the truth. His method of radical doubt is a powerful tool, which yields the penultimate truth as I apply it (and will illustrate in my reflection), and an indicator of such truth as Descartes applies it (‘Cogito, ergo sum’, from his Meditations)7, which is not is be completely discounted in light of my notion of pure self-reference, for Descartes’ indubitable self-thought is as yet far more significant to the history of modern Western philosophy.
Benedict de Spinoza deals with the definition of substance found in Descartes8, and is perhaps more strict about the definition of substance in refraining from employing the common notion of separate substances9. Rather than employing
Proposition 51 Proposition 64 Proposition 14; essentially identical to St. Anselm’s ontological argument Proposition 17 Proposition 7 Descartes’ Proposition 51
Which Descartes, at one point, in Proposition 64, calls “things which are separate from other things”, allowing for serious discrepancy with his definition from Proposition 51: “a things
different definitions of what a substance is, Spinoza, perhaps in reaction to Descartes’ use of the term, makes his insistence upon the unique nature of substance his top priority. But Spinoza consistently uses terms Descartes seems to use only once and drop from further usage10. Spinoza interprets substance as infinite, and so there is no confusion, he says it is absolutely infinite, as opposed to the Scholastic notion of infinitum secundum quid11, in his terms ‘infinite in its own kind’12. If substance were not infinite, it would be limited by and dependent upon something else, but substance cannot be limited and dependent upon something else by definition, so it is infinite. By ‘absolutely infinite’, Spinoza means ‘a substance consisting of infinitely many attributes’13. By ‘attribute’, he means ‘what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence’14. The notion of ‘mode’ is also essential to Spinoza. “By mode I understand the affections of a substance, or that which is in another through which it is also conceived”15. Hence, ‘mode’ and ‘attribute’ or ‘aspect’ are pretty similar, but both in Spinoza and Descartes16 the difference between mode and attribute or aspect is significant. A modulation or mode (or modification) is simply an insubstantial change, a transformation, whereas an attribute or aspect is a property, such as thought or extension are of the one substance, God.
which exists in such a way as to depend on no other thing for its existence”.
see the difference in importance of strict substance in propositions 51 and 52 from 53 infinite in a certain respect only explanation of definition 6 definition 6 definition 4 definition 5 Proposition 56
Infinitum absolutum, distinguished from infinitum secundum quid, is the true Infinite, the Infinite itself. However, I ascribe to a negative-theologicalnotion not of “that which possesses infinitely many attributes” as Spinoza has it, but of the very Absolute Infinite itself as ultimate reality, which is not a mere summative quantification of possibilities, but a positive designation of the qualitative original source which is not itself, not in-itself, as Spinoza’s ‘Infinite One’ is. Rather, that is a confusion on Spinoza’s part, between the nature of the Infinite and that of the One, for my central notion is that they are radically distinct, and this central notion is precisely what is lacking in Descartes’ foundational certainty: the ‘It-Self’, or ‘SelfItself’ is the One, namely, Oneself, and that is Being as pure self-reference, the only truly independent basis of any being, however abstract it may appear, it is the very being of any being. But it is not infinite in any way, it is the source of the finite, quite the opposite! Although it is the central notion, the ur-grund, the source, and the radicalization of the ‘Cogito, ergo Sum’, it is not ultimate reality, it is penultimate reality. Ultimate reality is God (Nirguna Brahman: without attributes) as the Absolute Infinite itself, as framed by Cantor, the metaphysical notion of the Infinite, opposed to the mathematicized Infinite (quantified Infinite).
In conclusion, I find that Spinoza and Descartes have a similar metaphysical structure, however much Spinoza reacts in deference to Descartes, this is only a disagreement with the way in which Descartes presents himself. The problem with Descartes is that he doesn’t stick to his definitions. The problem with Spinoza is that he is not equipped to correctly distinguish the nature of his foundational notion (for God is not substance, God is beyond substance). Both these thinkers seem to intuitively know that the ultimate reality beyond mere subjectivity is infinite, but are
not able to be sure that it is the Infinite itself, instead saying only that it has “infinite attributes”, as is evident in all things. And both rely on the notion of substance underlying appearances as the unity of all things. But the unity and the Infinite should not be confused. Instead, they should be seen as foundational concepts, levels zero and one of the hierarchy of all things.