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ARTICLE

THE FALSE DICHOTOMY BETWEEN OBJECTIVE


AND SUBJECTIVE INTERPRETATIONS OF SPINOZAS
THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES
1
Noa Shein
INTRODUCTION
Any serious attempt to understand Spinozas metaphysics requires an
understanding of Spinozas theory of attributes. It might seem a simple task
to understand what attributes are since Spinoza provides a denition for the
term attribute at the very beginning of the Ethics: By attribute I
understand what the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its
essence (1D4).
2
However, in spite of this, it is not clear from the denition
alone what Spinoza believes attributes to be. In a very inuential article,
Haserot nds no fewer than eight ambiguities in this denition.
3
The two
ambiguities that are most signicant concern the terms intellectus and
tanquam as they appear in the denition: Per attributum intelligo id, quod
intellectus de substantia percipit, tanquam ejusdem essentiam constituens. The
term intellect can refer either to the nite intellect or the innite one, and
tanquam can mean either as in fact or as if (but not in fact). The famous
debate among scholars whether attributes are objective or subjective can be
1
I am very grateful to Alan Nelson for his guidance and assistance on this paper and the
dissertation chapters upon which it is based. I am grateful as well to Michael Della Rocca for
his generous help and comments. I would also like to thank Nicholas Jolley, Paul Homan and
Amihud Gilead for their comments and observations. I would also like to acknowledge the
support of The University of Haifa for its support through a post-doctoral fellowship. Finally, I
am grateful to Miriam Shein for her much appreciated editorial suggestions.
2
All the Spinoza references are from Spinoza, The Collected Works of Spinoza, vol. I, translated
by Edwin Curley, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985. I have used the following
common abbreviations to refer to Spinozas writings: EEthics, Ep Correspondence
(epistolae), TdIETreatise on the Emendation of the Intellect. When referring to the Ethics I
have used these common forms and abbreviations: ax. axiom, Cor. corollary,
dem. demonstration, Pproposition, Schol. scholium, and so, 2P47, for example, refers
to Part Two of the Ethics, Proposition 47.
3
Haserot, Spinozas Denition of Attribute, in Studies in Spinoza, Critical and Interpretive
Essays, 4367.
British Journal for the History of Philosophy 17(3) 2009: 505532
British Journal for the History of Philosophy
ISSN 0960-8788 print/ISSN 1469-3526 online 2009 BSHP
http://www.informaworld.com DOI: 10.1080/09608780902986631
seen as a debate on which combination of meanings of the dierent
components of the denition should be adopted. Briey, the subjective
interpretation, traditionally conceived, takes the intellect in question to be the
nite one, and tanquam to mean as if (but not in fact). The denition,
according to this type of interpretation, should be understood as saying that
attributes are what the nite intellect perceives of substance as if (but not in
fact) constituting its essence. The objectivist interpretation, on the other hand,
favours rendering intellect as the innite intellect and tanquam as in fact.
Objectivists, therefore, take the denition as stating that attributes are what
the innite intellect perceives of substance as in fact constituting its essence.
Wolfson characterizes the dierence between the two positions as follows:
According to the former interpretation [subjectivism], to be perceived by the
mind means to be invented by the mind, for of themselves the attributes have
no independent existence at all but are identical with the essence of the
substance. According to the latter interpretation [objectivism], to be perceived
by the mind means only to be discovered by the mind, for even of themselves
the attributes have independent existence in the essence of substance.
(Wolfson, 1934: 146)
The driving force behind the subjectivist interpretation is what I shall call
the Simplicity Requirement, while the objectivists are guided by what I
shall call the Perfect Knowledge Requirement. As we shall see, the main
objection, or class of objections, that is raised against the subjectivist
interpretation (by the objectivists) is that the attributes turn out to be, for
the subjectivists, illusory.
4
In its simplest form, the objection states that since
the attributes are only as if (but not in fact) what constitutes the essence of
substance, they only seem to express the essence of substance but, in fact, do
not do so. In consequence, the true essence of substance is, in principle,
unknowable. In great part, for this reason, the subjectivist interpretation has
fallen into ill repute and most commentators have been persuaded to adopt
versions of the objectivist interpretation.
I will show, however, that the objectivist interpretation itself is subject to
a version of the objection it raises against the subjective interpretation, and
therefore cannot be seen to have the clear advantage over the subjectivist
interpretation as many are convinced it does. To do so, I will rst briey
present Wolfsons interpretation, since it is taken by the secondary literature
to be the paradigmatic example of a subjectivist interpretation and against
which the objections against subjectivism are often raised.
5
Second, I will
4
The main proponent of this view is Gueroult Spinoza I Dieu (Ethique, I) 50 and Appendix 3.
5
This can be seen, for example, in Bennett, Della Rocca, Haserot and Lennon. Jonathan Francis
Bennett, A Study of Spinozas Ethics, 146; Michael Della Rocca, Representation and the Mind
Body Problem in Spinoza, 157; Haserot. Denition of Attribute, 39; and Thomas M. Lennon,
The Rationalist Conception of Substance. A Companion to Rationalism, edited by Alan
Nelson, 1230, 20.
506 NOA SHEIN
present in fuller detail the objections that are raised and are considered as
fatal to this interpretation.
6
Third, I will present several alternative
objectivist interpretations and point out their essential features. Finally, I
will show why, in principle, the objectivist interpretation can do no better
than the subjectivist regarding the Illusory Knowledge Objection. This will
show some fundamental aws that are at the heart of the objectivist
interpretations. The aim of this paper, then, is to show that an objectivist
interpretation is not the best response to the problems raised against the
subjectivist interpretation, on the one hand. On the other, I will point
towards the direction in which I believe a solid interpretation of the theory
of attributes should go, one that is not vulnerable to objections that are
raised against both subjectivist and objectivist interpretations, that is, show
that the perceived dichotomy between the subjectivist and objectivist
interpretations is a false one.
WOLFSONS SUBJECTIVIST INTERPRETATION
Wolfsons main claim is that Spinoza, on the whole, follows traditional
medieval Jewish rationalist doctrine and, in particular, Spinozas treatment
of the relationship between substance and attribute is in this respect no
dierent (ibid.: 142). The problem the medieval rationalists faced was how
to reconcile Gods absolute simplicity with the divine attributes in such a
way that the divine attributes would not imply any multiplicity in God
(ibid.: 143). The solution to this problem, in broad terms, is to maintain
Gods absolute simplicity (the Simplicity Requirement) and locate all the
apparent multiplicity in the human or nite mind. On this view, it is a
feature of the human mind that it must conceive God under attributes in
such a way that they seem to imply a multiplicity in the object. However, the
apparent multiplicity in the object is only due to the nature of human
cognition and not due to the nature of the object itself. Since the nite mind
must conceive God under attributes (which seem to imply a multiplicity in
the object), God, as simple or in His essence, is thus rendered unknowable to
the nite mind (ibid.: 142).
Applying this to Spinoza, Wolfson claims rst that there is an
identication of the attributes with the substance, for of themselves the
attributes have no independent existence at all but are identical with the
essence of the substance (ibid.: 146); and second, that an attribute is a
description of the manner in which substance, unknowable in itself,
manifests itself to the human mind (ibid.: 145). Wolfsons Spinoza, then,
identies the attributes with the substance (in the sense that the attributes do
not have an independent existence in the substance), and although there
6
Alan Donagan, Spinoza, 70; Della Rocca, Representation, 157 n4; Bennett, Spinozas Ethics,
146; and E. M. Curley, in Spinoza, The Collected Works, 409, n2.
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 507
seems to be a multiplicity of attributes, in reality they are all identical.
Wolfson takes 1P10Schol to be an expression of this: . . . although two
attributes may be conceived to be really distinct (i.e., one may be conceived
without the aid of the other), we still cannot infer from that that they
constitute two beings, or two dierent substances. Wolfson claims:
The implications of this passage are these: The two attributes appear to the
mind as being distinct from each other. In reality, however, they are one. For
by Proposition X, attributes, like substance, are summa genera (conceived
through itself). The two attributes must therefore be one and identical with
substance.
(ibid.: 156)
GUEROULTS OBJECTIONS TO WOLFSONS INTERPRETATION
As I mentioned earlier, Gueroults objections to Wolfsons interpretation
have usually been taken as decisive and many have fashioned their own
objections after his.
7
His main objection concerns the apparently illusory
nature of the attributes under the subjectivist interpretation. I will present
rst Gueroults set of objections that I have called the Illusory Knowledge
Objections and present a further objection raised by Delahunty and
Haserot that can be classied in this category. I will then show how the
objectivist impetus to maintain the real distinction between the attributes
makes objectivist interpretations vulnerable to an objection analogous to
the Illusory Knowledge Objection.
Illusory Knowledge Objections
There is a cluster of objections raised by Gueroult that target the apparently
illusory nature of the attributes under the subjectivist interpretation that are
guided by what I have called the Perfect Knowledge Requirement. As
Gueroult understands Wolfsons position, there is a gap between the
substance and its attributes. This gap is created because attributes are
contributions of the nite mind; that is, they are something the nite mind
adds to its conception of the substance. Once this gap is established, there
seems to be a discrepancy between knowing the substance as it is in itself, so
to speak, and knowing it through the attributes. Another way of expressing
the illusory nature of the attributes in the subjective interpretation is the
following: attributes give the illusion that the substance has a multiplicity of
essences, when in fact it has only one simple essence.
7
Donagan, Spinoza, 70; Della Rocca, Representation, 157 n4; Bennett, Spinozas Ethics, 146;
and Curleys note in Spinoza, The Collected Works, 409 n2.
508 NOA SHEIN
Gueroult raises three dierent objections that can be classed under
Illusory Knowledge Objections. The rst has to do with the role and nature
of adequate knowledge in Spinoza. The second involves Spinozas claim in
1P10Schol that the attributes are really distinct. Finally, the third objection
centres on Spinozas apparent identication of the substance with its
attributes.
First Objection: The Finite Mind Perceives the Substance Adequately
Gueroult claims that attributes cannot be illusory in any way because
Spinoza insists that the mind perceives the substance adequately under the
dierent attributes (Gueroult, 1968: 50 and Appendix 3: 428). In support of
this claim, Gueroult points to 2P44dem as important evidence: It is of the
nature of reason to perceive things truly (by 2P41), namely (by 1A6) as
they are in themselves, that is (by 1P29), not as contingent but as
necessary.
8
Second Objection: There is a Real Distinction between the Attributes
The second objection Gueroult raises is based on the scholium to 1P10
which, as we have already seen, states the following:
From these propositions it is evident that although two attributes may be
conceived to be really distinct (i.e. one may be conceived without the aid of the
other), we still cannot infer from that that they constitute two beings, or two
dierent substances.
Recall that Wolfson had claimed that this scholium was evidence that all
the attributes were identical outside the intellect, i.e. in reality. Gueroult, on
the other hand, claims that this scholium makes it clear that the distinc-
tion between the attributes cannot be only a rational distinction (i.e. a
distinction that holds only in the mind but not in reality), but it must be a
real distinction, i.e. a distinction that holds in reality.
9
For Gueroult,
then, attributes must express essences which are dierent from each other
in re.
8
Delahunty agrees here with Gueroult: R. J. Delahunty, Spinoza, 117. Donagan, Haserot and
Parkinson raise similar considerations: Alan Donagan, Essence and the Distinction of
Attributes in Spinozas Metaphysics in Spinoza, a Collection of Critical Essays, edited by
Marjorie Glicksman Grene, 16481, 173; Haserot. Denition of Attribute, 32; and G. H. R.
Parkinson, Spinozas Theory of Knowledge, 85.
9
Della Rocca and Haserot raise a similar objection based on this scholium. Della Rocca,
Representation, 157 and Haserot, Denition of Attribute, 38.
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 509
Many understand Spinozas use of the terms rational distinction and
real distinction as explicitly adopting the Cartesian denition or they
interpret Spinozas use of them along Cartesian lines even if they do not
state this explicitly. The important element that these interpretations share is
that they understand a real distinction in Spinoza to imply that the source,
or what gives rise to the distinction, are the objects themselves.
10
As shall
become clear later on, interpreting Spinozas notion of real distinction
along these lines will make it dicult, paradoxically, to maintain an
objectivist interpretation.
Third Objection: Identication of the Substance with its Attributes
Finally, Gueroult points to Spinozas identication of the substance with its
attributes as an objection to the subjectivist account. As we have seen,
Gueroult takes the subjectivist interpretation necessarily to imply a gap
between the substance and its attributes. Gueroult, then, thinks it is a
problem for the subjectivist view that Spinoza seems to identify the
substance with its attributes in many places. One such example is the
demonstration to 1P4: Therefore, there is nothing outside the intellect
through which a number of things can be distinguished from one another
except substance, or what is the same (by 1D4), their attributes, and their
aections (italics added).
Fourth Objection: Gods Knowledge is Illusory
There is yet another objection which is raised and can be included in the
class of Illusory Knowledge Objections. This objection is raised by
Delahunty and Haserot, among others.
11
The objection can be stated as
follows. On the subjectivist interpretation, not only are the attributes
illusory for the nite mind, but it turns out that the attributes are illusory
with respect to the innite mind as well. Since what gives rise to the
attributes are projections of the nite mind, the innite intellect is forced to
perceive through these nite-mind projections as well, and in that sense is
dependent on the nite mind. It seems then, that not only is the nite minds
knowledge of God illusory, but Gods knowledge of himself is illusory as
well a seemingly rather unwelcome result.
In light of all these objections, it seems that we can nd some important
points on which proponents of the objectivist interpretation agree, even
10
Some salient examples are Donagan, Delahunty, Gueroult and Haserot. Donagan, Essence,
173; Delahunty, Spinoza, 120; Gueroult, Spinoza I, 430; and Haserot, Denition of
Attribute, 40.
11
Haserot, Denition of Attribute, 315, and Delahunty, Spinoza, 117.
510 NOA SHEIN
though their fully developed positive accounts dier quite a bit. The most
important point on which they agree is that the attributes are not
projections of the mind (either nite or innite), but really do pertain to
the substance. Second, they agree that the attributes are really distinct, not
merely rationally distinct, from each other. Third, they seem to agree that it
is the innite intellect that is doing the perceiving referred to in 1D4 having
the innite intellect do the perceiving is supposed to ground objectivity and
the possibility of perfect knowledge in the system. Finally, they hold that the
subjectivist account is committed to holding that there is a gap between the
attributes and the substance. As I mentioned earlier, these commitments on
the side of the objectivist interpretation resurrect a version of the Illusory
Knowledge Objection which I will presently address.
A NEW ILLUSORY KNOWLEDGE OBJECTION
The subjectivist account, then, takes the Simplicity Requirement to be
fundamental. The burden for this type of interpretation is to reconcile this
with the apparent diversity of attributes. On the other hand, since the
objectivist interpretation does not want to accept a mere rational
distinction among the attributes, it insists that the distinction between the
attributes is real.
12
It is clear that the objectivists want to maintain that there
is a distinction in the object (the innite substance) which gives rise to or is
the ground or reason for, the distinction among the attributes. The danger,
however, that the objectivist interpretation faces is that by insisting on the
distinction between the attributes the resulting multiplicity of essences
threatens a multiplicity of substances.
13
The tension between holding onto the objectivity of the attributes, on the
one hand, and maintaining the unity of the substance, on the other,
manifests itself in the literature in several much discussed debates. One
important example of a debate that arises from the tension between the
objectivity of attributes and the unity of the substance is the debate on the
kind of unity that ought to be attributed to modes of parallel attributes.
The problem can be stated as follows: modes depend on, are conceived
through, and follow from their attributes. Since the attributes are really, and
not merely rationally, distinct, it seems that a mode of attribute X ought to
be really distinct from a mode of attribute Y. However, Spinoza claims in
12
In this section I am mainly discussing the relation among the attributes and not so much the
relation between any given attribute and the substance. Bennett, for example, although he can
be classied as an objectivist with respect to the latter, cannot be classied as such with respect
to the former (Bennett, Spinozas Ethics, 602 and Eight Questions About Spinoza in Spinoza
on Knowledge and the Human Mind: Papers Presented at the Second Jerusalem Conference
(Ethica II), edited by Yirmiahu Yovel and Gideon Segal, 1126.
13
Lennon brings up this point as an objection to Gueroult: Lennon, Rationalism, 25.
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 511
2P7Schol that mode X under the attribute of Thought and mode X under
the attribute of Extension are one and the same. Since the objectivist
interpretation wants to insist on the real distinctness (as something
grounded in the substance), it has to account for the apparent unity
expressed in 2P7Schol. The subjectivist interpretation, of course, does not
have to face this problem, since it holds that in reality the attributes are
identical. When facing the problem of accounting for the unity of modes,
some claim that any given mode in an attribute is numerically identical to
its counterparts in other attributes.
14
Others, however, insisting on the
cognitive and causal separation between the attributes, argue that the modes
cannot be numerically identical.
15
By insisting on the real distinction between
the attributes, the objectivist interpretation nds itself, then, having to
supplement Spinozas texts by supplying an explanation for the unity (or
apparent unity) of the modes of really distinct attributes.
One way of addressing this issue that is now popular is to posit trans-
attribute features in one capacity or another that might preserve some kind
of unity of the modes. As we shall see, however, the positing of these trans-
attribute properties will revive a version of the Illusory Knowledge
Objection which the objectivists raised against the subjectivists. These
trans-attribute properties or features cannot be perceived as such, since
everything, for Spinoza, must be perceived under an attribute (1P10Schol).
It seems, then, that what accounts for one of the most fundamental features
of Spinozas metaphysical system, namely the unity of the modes of dierent
attributes, is rendered unknowable in principle on the objectivist inter-
pretation. Positing these trans-attribute properties or features renders
Gods true nature unknowable.
The objectivist interpretation is therefore, in this respect, in no better
position than the subjectivist interpretation. Although objectivists take
themselves to be oering a radically dierent interpretation, it is important
to note the unacknowledged common core shared with their opponent. To
conrm this, I have chosen to look at four very inuential interpretations
and show rst how their mechanisms for treating the problem of the unity of
modes are in fact diverse. Then I will show how this new Illusory
Knowledge Objection, nonetheless, can be raised against each of them. This
will show not only how this objection can be raised against these specic
accounts, but also more generally how it can be raised against any
interpretation which shares their commitments regarding the grounds for
the distinction among the attributes.
14
Della Rocca, for example, argues for such a view: Della Rocca, Representation, 11840.
Others include Henry E. Allison, Benedict De Spinoza: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 1987) 86, and E. M. Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of
Spinozas Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988) 689, 82.
15
Bennett, Spinozas Ethics, 1439; Delahunty, Spinoza, 121; and Martial Gueroult, Spinoza 2
Lame (Ethique, 2), 86.
512 NOA SHEIN
Accounting for the Unity of Modes and Substance
In 2P7Schol, after reminding us that the Thinking Substance and the
Extended Substance are one and the same substance, Spinoza goes on
famously to claim: So also a mode of extension and the idea of that mode
are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways. At rst glance,
Spinoza seems to be claiming here that, in the same way that we have only
one substance which is comprehended under or expressed in dierent
attributes, any given mode is one thing but can be regarded under dierent
attributes. Commentators have, however, tried to argue that this prima facie
reading cannot be correct, since it seems to violate the real distinction
between the attributes or the causal and explanatory barrier between the
attributes. Della Rocca expresses this traditional diculty in the following
way (although in the end he oers a solution according to which the modes
can be taken to be numerically identical); if we were to take mode X of
Thought to be the same one, i.e. numerically identical to, mode X in
Extension, the following inference would hold:
1. Mode of Extension
1
causes Mode of Extension
2
2. Mode of Thought
A
Mode of Extension
1
3. Mode of Thought
A
causes Mode of Extension
2
16
This conclusion, namely (3), is unacceptable, since Spinoza claims over and
over again that modes of Thought cannot be the cause of modes of
Extension (cf. for example 2P6). Della Rocca maintains both a causal and a
conceptual gap between the attributes, and holds that a mode expressed in
Extension can be, nonetheless, numerically identical to its counterpart in the
attribute of Thought. As we shall see, however, Della Rocca invokes quite a
bit of machinery in order to hold this position. Bennett and Donagan
maintain that a mode of one attribute cannot be numerically identical to its
parallel counterpart in another attribute. Rather than stressing the causal
gap between the attributes, as Della Rocca does, they stress that the modes
of one attribute cannot be conceived through the other. They claim that if
we were to take modes of Extension and modes of Thought to be identical,
we would be forced to conceive one through the other.
17
Gueroult, as
well, addresses the unity of modes while explaining 2P7 in general. Gueroult
points to 1P28 (the innite chain of causes) to solve this problem and
draws a distinction between modes of substance and modes of an
attribute.
18
16
Della Rocca, Representation, 122.
17
Bennett, Spinozas Ethics, 141; Bennett, Eight Questions, 18. Alan Donagan, Spinozas
Dualism, in The Philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, edited by Richard Kennington, 89102, 967.
18
Gueroult, Spinoza 2, 86. In an as yet unpublished paper titled Causation as Determination
and the Innite Series of Finite Modes I argue for an alternative reading of 1P28, according to
which the structure of the causal relations expressed in 1P28 is not linear or chain-like, but
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 513
At this point, I would like to focus our attention on Della Rocca, Bennett,
Donagan and Gueroult to see how each accounts very dierently for the
unity associated with modes of dierent attributes. As I mentioned, this is a
problem that only arises for the objectivists precisely because of their
insistence on the real distinction among the attributes. My nal aim,
however, is to show that the machinery, no matter how dierent and diverse,
invoked in order to account for this unity renders these objectivist
interpretations vulnerable to a kind of Illusory Knowledge Objection,
and therefore, in this regard, an objectivist interpretation is on no better
footing than a subjectivist one.
Della Roccas Position
Della Rocca (as opposed to Bennett and Donagan) claims that the identity
that ought to be associated with parallel modes is numerical identity. In
order to argue for the numerical identity, Della Rocca draws the familiar
distinction between intensional properties and extensional properties: . . . a
property is an intensional property if (and only if) contexts involving the
attribution of that property to objects are opaque. I will call all other
properties extensional properties (Della Rocca, 1996: 129). A context is
referentially opaque if the truth value of the sentence resulting from
completing the context does depend on which particular term is used to refer
to that object (ibid.: 122). A common example of such contexts are
contexts involving beliefs. To review that these contexts involve referential
opacity, Della Rocca suggests we consider the dierence between these two
cases:
1. The spy is a spy.
2. The spy is Johns brother.
3. Therefore, Johns brother is a spy.
and
1. John believes that the spy is a spy.
2. The spy is Johns brother (but John does not know this).
3. Therefore, John believes that Johns brother is a spy.
Although the inference in the rst case is valid, it is not in the second. In
the second case, it seems to be relevant, i.e. aects the validity of the
inference, whether the object is picked out as Johns brother or the spy.
rather, an all-inclusive network of inter-determining nite modes, and that the causation
alluded to must be conceived of primarily as determination sub specie aeternitatis.
514 NOA SHEIN
The dierence between the two, then, is that in the rst case the context of
the linguistic phrase . . . is a spy is referentially transparent, that is, the
truth value of the sentence resulting from completing the context with a
term that refers to a particular object does not depend on what particular
term is used to refer to that object (ibid.: 122). In the second inference the
context John believes that . . . is a spy is referentially opaque; that is,
the truth value of the sentence resulting from completing the context
does depend on which particular term is used to refer to that object
(ibid.: 122).
In addition, Della Rocca makes a distinction between the intensional and
neutral properties that a mode can have. An intensional property is one
which involves an attribute, such as being of a certain volume. Having a
certain volume is an intensional property because it presupposes that the
thing which has a certain volume has the property of being extended. On the
other hand, neutral properties are those which do not presuppose being of
any particular attribute (and all of these properties are also extensional, i.e.
properties which do not involve opacity in their attribution to objects). One
very important implication of this view, as we shall see, is that contexts
involving attributes are referentially opaque. Della Rocca outlines his
argument as follows:
Since all extensional properties must, for Spinoza, be neutral, I will investigate
what kinds of properties Spinoza would regard as neutral. By eliciting these
neutral properties, it will become evident that, for Spinoza, mind and body
share all their neutral properties. From this fact, it follows that mind and body
share all their extensional properties and are thus identical.
(ibid.: 133)
Della Rocca claims that the parallelism lays the ground for the
neutral properties, since it not only ensures a one-to-one correspondence
between ideas and things, but also that the order and connections of modes
in the two series is the same. So, an example of a neutral feature that is
shared by parallel modes is the feature of having ve immediate eects
(ibid.: 133).
Della Rocca argues that if two modes share all their neutral properties,
they are identical. Modes cannot be identical in virtue of their intensional
properties, since intensional properties are those which involve the attribute.
Since intensional properties presuppose their attribute, they cannot be
conceived one through the other, and so, with regard to intensional
properties, my mind and my body, say, are incommensurable. Neutral
properties, Della Rocca claims, contribute by situating the modes in the
order and connection between modes, that is, in the innite causal chain.
The position of each mode in the order and connection of things is unique.
Therefore, if two modes share all their neutral properties, they are situated
in the same place in the order and connection of things, and are therefore
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 515
identical. A mode of Thought, e.g. my mind, and a mode of Extension, e.g.
my body will be identical, according to Della Rocca, i they share all of
their neutral properties (ibid.: 1338).
19
Bennetts Position
20
Bennett, unlike Della Rocca, argues that a mode of Extension P
1
cannot be
numerically identical to a mode of Thought M
1
because they belong to
dierent attributes, and therefore one cannot cause or be conceived through
the other. However, since the identity of P
1
and M
1
is what grounds the
parallelism, Bennett introduces a thesis that, he admits, is far from being
explicit in the text, but one he believes helps to explain Spinozas argument
for the parallelism. Bennett claims that Spinoza is not arguing for numerical
identity between modes of dierent attributes, but rather, he is arguing only
for an identity of properties:
his [Spinozas] thesis about the identity of physical and mental particulars is
really about the identity of properties. He cannot be saying that physical
P
1
mental M
1
; that is impossible because they belong to dierent attributes.
His thesis is rather that if P
1
is systematically linked with M
1
, then P
1
is
extension-and-F for some dierentia F such that M
1
is thought-and-F. What it
takes for an extended world to contain my body is exactly what it takes for a
thinking world to contain my mind.
(Bennett, 1984: 141)
The suggestion is that there is a neutral or trans-attribute mode x, which can
be combined with either Thought or Extension to become either a mode of
Thought or a mode of Extension. As Bennett says:
in our present context I must suppose him to be thinking of modes or
things, as he calls them as having their attributes peeled o, i.e. as
19
A related interpretation which antedates Della Roccas is presented by Gilead, who claims
that the unity of mind and body is due to the location of the nite modes in the imminent chain
of causes. Gilead argues that the essence of each mode is its location in this chain which is the
same throughout the attributes. He contrasts the essence of a mode with its properties, which
are not trans-attributional. As he says:
understanding the attribute as a total chain of causes and eects and the principle of
individuation which is adequate causation mind and body are the very same essence,
the very same link, in this chain, be their properties in each attribute what they may
[my translation].
(Gilead, Amihud. The Way of Spinozas Philosophy Toward a Philosophical System.
(Jerusalem: Mosad Byalik, 1986, 177)
20
In this context Bennett can be categorized as an objectivist since he claims that the attributes
are really distinct. He may not be as easily classied as an objectivist with respect to the
relationship between any given attribute and the substance (cf. discussion below.)
516 NOA SHEIN
consisting in the F which must be added to extension to get my body or to
thought to get my mind.
(ibid.: 142)
These trans-attribute modes (or dierentiae) lie deeper in the metaphy-
sical structure than the attributes. Therefore, trans-attribute modes
or dierentiae cannot be conceived as such, not even by an innite
intellect, since everything that is conceived must be conceived under
an attribute. I will return to this odd claim in more detail in what
follows.
Bennett thinks that this helps to explain some of the mystery surrounding
the denition of attribute. More specically, he believes it aids in
understanding why Spinoza claims that attributes are only what the intellect
perceives as the essence of substance and not that it is the essence of
substance. Spinoza, according to Bennett, claims that attributes are only
conceived as the essence of substance and not that they are the essence of
substance, because there are features that are more basic than the attributes,
namely the trans-attribute mode or dierentiae, which, nonetheless,
cannot be perceived as such. Therfore, Bennett claims: . . . 1d4 implies that
there is something in the nature of an illusion or error or lack of intellectual
depth or thoroughness in taking an attribute to be a basic property
(ibid.: 146).
Bennett, however, is careful to distinguish the type of illusion he
associates with the attributes from the one Wolfson is said to associate
with them:
Spinoza certainly thought that there are at least two attributes, each of which
really is instantiated. But the gunre aimed at Wolfsons interpretations goes
wide of mine. I say that Nature really has extension and thought, which really
are distinct from one another, but that they are not really fundamental
properties, although they must be perceived as such by any intellect.
(ibid.: 147)
Bennetts claim, then, is that there is no illusion regarding the distinctness of
the attributes, as Bennett claims Wolfson holds, but only in taking the
attributes to be fundamental properties of the one substance. For our
purposes, it is important to note that Bennett insists on holding onto the
objectivity of the distinctness between the attributes, i.e. what he takes to be
their real distinction one from another.
In addition to the objection I shall raise against objectivist interpretations
in general with respect to the Illusory Knowledge Objection, I would now
like to raise another objection to Bennetts position. As we saw, there are
two separate issues surrounding the objectivity or subjectivity of the
attributes. The rst is the relation of any given attribute to the substance,
and the second is the relation among the dierent attributes. In this section I
have been dealing only with the relationship between the attributes, i.e. in
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 517
what their real distinctness consists.
21
As we saw, in this latter respect
Bennett is an objectivist since he wants to hold, in opposition to Wolfson,
that: . . . Nature really has Extension and Thought, which really are distinct
from one another, but that they are not really fundamental properties,
although they must be perceived as such by any intellect [italics added]
(ibid.: 147). As a result of the distinctness of the attributes, Bennett argues,
as we have just seen, for a deeper layer trans-attribute modes in order to
account for the identity of parallel modes in Thought and Extension.
This last claim seems dicult to reconcile with Bennetts earlier account in
his book regarding the relation between any given attribute and the
substance. In Section 16, Bennett makes the following claim:
I think that here [Ep. 9] he is saying that substance diers from attribute only
by the dierence between a substance and an adjectival presentation of the
very same content. If we look for how that which is extended (substance) diers
from extension (attribute), we nd that it consists only in the notion of that
which has . . . extension or thought or whatever; and that, Spinoza thinks,
adds nothing to the conceptual content of extension, but merely marks
something about how the content is logically structured. As I did in x12.7, he is
rejecting the view that a property bearer is an item whose nature qualies it to
have properties, in favour of the view that the notion of a property bearer, of a
thing which . . . is a bit of formal apparatus, something which organizes
conceptual content without adding to it. According to this view, there is an
emptiness about the dierence between substance and attribute.
(ibid.: 623)
Bennett then, seems to be claiming that there is an important sense in which
there is no dierence between an attribute and the substance. The dierence
does not seem to be in the things themselves, i.e. the attribute, on the one
hand, and the substance, on the other, but merely somehow in the way the
content is logically structured. However, he insists that there cannot be an
absolute identity between an attribute and the substance since Spinoza
clearly holds that there are at least two attributes and only one substance
(ibid.: 64). Although there is textual evidence for equating attributes with
substance, Bennett claims that in some places Spinoza has simply gone too
far by implying that attributes are substances (ibid.: 64). No matter which
text Bennett wishes to deny concerning the question of the identication of
the attribute with the substance, the important point is that he claims that
there is an emptiness about the dierence between substance and attribute.
It is this last claim that seems dicult to reconcile with his claims later on
regarding trans-attribute modes, as we shall presently see.
21
In my dissertation, The Structure of Spinozas Metaphysics: Attributes, Finite Minds and the
Innite Intellect (Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Irvine, 2006), the second chapter
is dedicated to treating the latter relation, namely, the relation between any given attribute and
the substance.
518 NOA SHEIN
Bennett claims that there is an important sense in which there is no
dierence between an attribute and the substance, by stating that an
attribute is just a bit of formal apparatus (ibid.: 63). On the other hand,
when explaining the nature of trans-attribute modes, he asks us to consider
them as having their attribute being peeled o from them (ibid.: 162). In
this context Bennett seems to be claiming that attributes are something that
can be added or combined with the trans-attribute mode to result in an
attribute-mode (i.e. either a mode of Extension or a mode of Thought). It is
not clear, however, how this view, namely that of treating attributes as
something that can be peeled o or combined with a trans-attribute mode,
can be reconciled with the view that attributes are just a bit of formal
apparatus. The dierence between an attribute and the substance cannot be
as empty as Bennett rst suggests, if attributes can be peeled o or combined
with trans-attribute modes. To give a coherent interpretation, then, Bennett
must either modify what he takes to be the relation between any given
attribute and the substance, or conversely the distinctness of the dierent
attributes from each other.
Donagans Position
Donagan agrees with Bennett that a mode of Extension cannot be
numerically identical to a mode of Thought. The reason he provides for
this is that a mode of thinking is not extended and a mode of extension is
not thinking:
it is Spinozas position that nothing can believe, desire, hope, fear, or love
except as it is considered under the attribute cogitatio. None of these modes
can intelligibly be said to be in a res extensa. And for the same reasons, none of
the modes involving motion and rest nothing in what Spinoza called the
facies totius universi, which constantly changes according to the same
unchanging physical laws can intelligibly be said to be in a res cogitans
(cf. EI, P10; EI, P6).
(Donagan, 1989: 967)
Since the attributes are conceptually independent, one cannot be conceived
through the other. However, the numerical identity thesis seems to require
that we be able to do precisely that, namely, conceive a mode of Thought
through Extension, and vice versa. Although Donagan does not argue
independently for a theory regarding the type of identity we ought to
associate with modes of dierent attributes, by looking at what he thinks
accounts for the unity of substance we can gather some important points
that are pertinent to the present discussion.
The problem Donagan sets out to solve is how we can prove that we have
one substance with an innity of attributes, rather than an innity of
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 519
one-attribute substances, given that each of the attributes is conceptually
independent.
22
Donagan follows Bennett, in a way, by establishing
something more fundamental than the attributes to account for the unity.
For Donagan, rather than positing trans-attribute modes, he argues for a
trans-attribute set of laws of immanent causation (from which the modes
follow along with the set of laws of transient causation which govern the
interaction between the modes) (ibid.: 87). The claim, then, is that when
several attributes share the same set of trans-attribute laws of immanent
causation, together with the notion that these attributes are projections of
each other, then they are attributes of the same substance. In conclusion
Donagan claims the following:
Two or more attributes constitute the essence of the same substance if and
only if it is a law of nature that whatever has either can neither be created nor
destroyed, and that it immanently causes modes both in the same order as
whatever has the other, and with the same interconnections, although insofar
as it is constituted by one, its kind is distinct from what is insofar as it is
constituted by the other.
(ibid.: 88)
The trans-attribute laws of nature, then, together with the set of laws of
immanent causation, account for the unity of substance and, to use
Bennetts expression, lie deeper than the attributes. Donagan, of course,
concedes that these laws of nature cannot be conceived as trans-
attributional since they must be conceived under any one of the attributes.
Gueroults Position
While giving a general explanation of 2P7, Gueroult claims that what
accounts for the unity of the modes is established in 1P28.
23
This
proposition states that:
Every singular thing, or any thing which is nite and has a determinate
existence, can neither exist nor be determined to produce an eect unless it is
determined to exist and produce an eect by another cause, which is also nite
and has a determinate existence; and again, this cause also can neither exist nor
be determined to produce an eect unless it is determined to exist and produce
an eect by another, which is also nite and has a determinate existence, and
so on, to innity.
22
Donagan, however, expresses this slightly dierently, posing the problem as having to
account for more than one attribute expressing the essence of substance (Donagan,
Spinoza, 87).
23
Gueroult, Spinoza 2, 86.
520 NOA SHEIN
Gueroult argues that this innite chain of causes follows from the
substance, that is, the innite series of nite modes.
24
In his account of
1P28, Gueroult makes the distinction between modes of substance and
modes of attributes, and claims that 1P28 concerns modes of substance
and not modes of attributes.
25
Since the chain concerns modes of
substance, the chain is unique. If it were to concern modes of attributes,
there would be an innite number of these chains corresponding to the
dierent attributes. Gueroult then argues, regarding 2P7, that the one and
the sameness is pointing to modes of substance, i.e. the one in the unique
innite chain of modes established in 1P28. He further claims that this one
unique innite chain of nite modes is expressed in all the dierent
attributes.
The Re-emergence of the Illusory Knowledge Objection
While trying to reconcile the real distinctness of the attributes with the
unity of parallel modes, we see how Della Rocca, Bennett, Donagan and
Gueroult, each in their own way, invoke an attribute-neutral structure to
account for the unity. Although they dier as to what kind of unity they
believe attaches to the modes, they all assign a seemingly deeper or super
layer to the metaphysical structure, namely an attribute-neutral one, to
account for the unity. Furthermore, by their own admission this layer
cannot be conceived as such, since everything must be conceived under one
attribute or another.
The reason why this level is unknowable is not merely because Spinoza
claims that everything must be conceived under an attribute, but it can also
be seen to have a Cartesian rationale. I do not believe this last point is
appreciated by commentators, although they all invoke Spinozas
outright claim that everything must be conceived under an attribute. It is
worthwhile to go back to Descartes and examine this consideration. In
Article 63 of Part One of the Principles of Philosophy, Descartes claims the
following:
Thought and extension can be regarded as constituting the natures of
intelligent substance and corporeal substance; they must then be considered as
nothing else but thinking substance itself and extended substance itself that
is, as mind and body. Indeed, it is much easier for us to have an understanding
of extended substance or thinking substance than it is for us to understand
substance on its own, leaving out the fact that it thinks or is extended. For we
have some diculty in abstracting the notion of substance from the notions of
thought and extension, since the distinction between these notions and the
24
Cf. n18.
25
Gueroult, Spinoza I, 3389.
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 521
notion of substance itself is merely a conceptual distinction. A concept is no
more distinct because we include less in it; its distinctness simply
depends on our carefully distinguishing what we do include in it from
everything else.
26
(CSM, I: 215, AT30)
Of relevance to the present discussion is Descartes claim that our
conception of substance on its own is more confused than our conception
of either extended substance or thinking substance. The reason for this
is that since thought (and extension) are only rationally distinct from their
substance (i.e. they are identical in re), abstracting substance from
thinking substance or extended substance is tantamount to abstracting
something from itself. It is no accident, then, that the notion of substance
is more confused than either extended substance or thinking substance.
This diculty is analogous to trying to abstract an attribute-neutral
property or mode in Spinozas metaphysics from modes of Thought or
modes of Extension. The way we would go about this would be to
consider modes of Thought and then modes of Extension and then try to
leave out the fact that it thinks or is extended. However, we cannot
adequately leave out the fact that it is thinking or extended and so
conceiving an attribute-neutral property or mode is less adequate than
thinking an attribute-mode. Not only is it less adequate, but in a way it is
literally impossible, since any given mode is conceived through its attribute.
A trans-attribute structure is inconceivable in principle by its very nature
as beyond the attributes. It seems to be a curious result of the objectivists
interpretation that what they take to be one of the most fundamental
features of Spinozas metaphysical system is thus rendered unknowable in
principle.
It is at this point that an analogous objection to the Illusory Knowledge
Objection that was raised against the subjectivist interpretation begins to
emerge. Recall that the objection to Wolfson was that if attributes are what
the nite intellect contributes to its perception of substance, God in His true
nature (i.e. without the attributes) is unknowable. This is what seemed to go
against the Perfect Knowledge Requirement, that is, that what is conceived
through the attributes is conceived as it truly is. It now seems, however, that
by insisting on the real distinction between the attributes as something that
is grounded in the substance, we are forced to introduce a level into
Spinozas metaphysical system that is unknowable by its very nature as
26
All Descartes references, unless otherwise noted, are from The Philosophical Writings of
Descartes, translated by John Cottingham, Robert Stootho, Dugald Murdoch (vols. I and II)
and Anthony Kenny (vol. III). I have also noted the pagination from the standard edition of
Descartes writings edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery. I have used the following
common abbreviations, e.g. CSM, I: 210, AT25, indicates the rst volume of The Philosophical
Writings of Descartes, 210, and page 25 in the Adam and Tannery edition.
522 NOA SHEIN
neutral or trans-attributional.
27
Paradoxically, then, by trying to ground
the objective nature of the distinction between the attributes in order to
ensure true and perfect knowledge, the objectivist interpretation renders
knowledge through attributes illusory. Knowledge through the attributes is
rendered illusory because there is a level in the system which remains
inaccessible. The super true nature of the modes, on the objectivist
interpretation, is trans-attributional or attribute-neutral.
Not only does the introduction of this trans-attribute or attribute-
neutral level to Spinozas metaphysical system land us back in an Illusory
Knowledge Objection, it has no textual basis. Bennett admits outright that
by positing this trans-attribute level, he is signicantly extrapolating from
the text, and it is no secret that nowhere in the text is there a clear statement
that there is such a level in the metaphysical system on the contrary, the
text seems to deny the possibility of such a level.
28
Commentators believe
that this is legitimate as they see no other way of holding onto the real
distinction among the attributes, on the one hand, and the unity of modes
of parallel attributes, on the other. As I have intimated earlier, I believe the
source of the problem is these commentators misunderstanding of what a
real distinction is for Spinoza. This misunderstanding can be tracked back
to a misunderstanding of what a real distinction (and a rational distinction)
are for Descartes.
I think it is worthwhile to look more closely at Descartes denition of
these distinctions and to emphasize that there is a very important respect in
which they are not applicable to Spinozas metaphysics and therefore make
these objections suspect.
29
In The Principles of Philosophy, I x60 Descartes
denes a real distinction as follows:
Strictly speaking, a real distinction exists only between two or more
substances; and we can perceive that two substances are really distinct simply
from the fact that we can clearly and distinctly understand one apart from the
other.
(Principles, I, 60, CSM, I: 213, AT 28)
27
Della Rocca claims that the trans-attribute identity is intelligible in the sense that there is
nothing preventing it (Della Rocca, Representation, 150). However, this seems like a dierent
kind of knowing than the one that is attached to having ideas of modes, that is, through an
attribute. It seems then, that Della Rocca will have to admit that there is another sense of
knowing that is being associated with knowing the unity. This knowledge, however, seems to
require the kind of abstraction invoked in knowing substance regardless of its attributes that
as I showed, is to a degree confused.
28
Bennett, Spinozas Ethics, 142.
29
I draw here mainly on Nolans interpretation of rational distinction in Descartes: Lawrence
Nolan, Reductionism and Nominalism in Descartess Theory of Attributes in Topoi, 16 (1997).
For two other alternative interpretations of this distinction, cf. Paul Homan, Descartess
Theory of Distinction, and Justin Skirry, Descartess Conceptual Distinction and its
Ontological Import.
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 523
Descartes main claim here is ontological; that is, a real distinction is one
which holds between two dierent substances. Evidence of this ontological
dierence is the epistemological fact that we can clearly and distinctly
conceive the substances apart from each other. A rational distinction, on the
other hand, is dened by Descartes as follows:
30
Finally, a conceptual distinction [read rational distinction] is a distinction
between a substance and some attribute of that substance without which the
substance is unintelligible; alternatively, it is a distinction between two such
attributes of a single substance. Such a distinction is recognized by our
inability to form a clear and distinct idea of the substance if we exclude from it
the attribute in question, or, alternatively, by our inability to perceive clearly
the idea of one of the two attributes if we separate it from the other.
(Principles, I, 63, CSM, I: 214, AT 30)
A rational distinction for Descartes, then, is one which holds between an
attribute and its substance or between two attributes of the same substance.
In a letter to an unknown correspondent, Descartes elaborates on this
distinction:
Thus, when I think of the essence of a triangle, and of the existence of the same
triangle, these two thoughts, as thoughts, even taken objectively dier modally
in the strict sense of the term mode; but the case is not the same with the
triangle existing outside thought, in which it seems to me manifest that essence
and existence are in no way distinct.
(CSM, III: 280, AT 350)
For Descartes, then, an attribute and its substance or two attributes of the
same substance, in re, i.e. outside our thought, are in no way distinct. It is
only in our thought that these two are separable. As we saw, in Principles,
I x63, this ontological fact, i.e. that in re they are in no way distinct, is
recognized by our inability to form a clear and distinct idea of the substance
excluding the attribute, or to completely exclude from each other the ideas
of two attributes of the same substance.
For the present discussion all that is necessary to realize is that Spinoza
must adjust these notions quite signicantly in order for them to t his
ontology. His use of real distinction is the one which will suer the most
change. Again, for Descartes a real distinction is one that holds between
two substances. Spinoza, of course, cannot adopt this as a denition for a
real distinction, since for him there is ultimately only the one innite
substance. What he does adopt is the epistemological implication of
30
The translation in CSM is a bit misleading here. CSM translate distinctio rationis as
conceptual distinction rather than the preferable rational distinction. In what follows, I shall
use the latter term to refer to this type of distinction.
524 NOA SHEIN
Descartes denition, namely, that attributes (belonging to dierent
substances in Descartes) cannot be conceived one through the other. Thus,
in IP10Schol, as we have seen, Spinoza says:
From these propositions it is evident that although two attributes may be
conceived to be really distinct (i.e., one may be conceived without the aid of the
other), we still cannot infer from that that they constitute two beings, or two
dierent substances [italics added].
When Spinoza says that attributes are really distinct, he is saying only that
one cannot be conceived through the other and does not imply that one can
exist without the other; that is, he adopts the epistemological implications of
the distinction but not the ontological ones. Lennon in his article expresses
this as follows: In short, Spinoza takes the inevitable step of denying the
conceivability-apart principle. He does so for the reason that, while some
things are conceivable apart, nothing can exist apart (Lennon, 2005: 24).
Nonetheless, some commentators, as we have seen, claim that Spinoza uses
the term real distinction to have ontological implications; that is, that there
is some distinction in the object which gives rise to the distinction among the
attributes. This, in turn, leads quite directly to what I called The New
Illusory Knowledge Objection.
A FALSE DICHOTOMY
What gives rise to the Illusory Knowledge Objection for the subjectivist
and objectivist interpretations is that they establish, albeit in dierent
ways, a gap between the substance and its attributes. The subjectivist
account, as traditionally conceived, introduces this gap by claiming that
attributes are something the nite mind adds to its perception of
substance. For the objectivists this gap forms when introducing a trans-
attribute structure into the metaphysics, which they believe they are
forced to do in order to maintain the real distinction among the
attributes, on the one hand, and the unity on the other. One way to
avoid this type of objection would be to stay clear of introducing such
gaps, which is, I suggest, precisely what Spinoza does in fact do. There
are three places in the Ethics where Spinoza strictly identies the
attributes with the substance. The rst appears in the demonstration to
Proposition Four of Part One:
Whatever is, is either in itself or in another (by A1), i.e. (by D3 and D5)
outside the intellect there is nothing except substances and their aections.
Therefore, there is nothing outside the intellect through which a number of
things can be distinguished from one another except substances, or what is the
same (by A4), their attributes, and their aections, q.e.d. [emphasis mine].
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 525
The second piece of evidence occurs in the statement of 1P19: God is
eternal, or all Gods attributes are eternal. Finally in the second corollary to
1P20 Spinoza phrases the identication similarly to the way he does in 1P19:
It follows second, that God, or all of Gods attributes, are immutable. The
talk of an attribute as constituting a substance in the scholium to 1P10 can
also be read as implying an identity:
From these propositions it is evident that although two attributes may be
conceived to be really distinct (i.e. one may be conceived without the aid of the
other), we still cannot infer from that that they constitute two beings, or two
dierent substances.
These texts are problematic for both camps. As Gueroult points out, they
are problematic for the subjectivist because they seem to deny the possibility
of attributes being something added to the substance (Gueroult, 1968:
430). The objectivists, on the other hand, cannot read them literally either,
since they are committed to the real distinction between the attributes. The
reason this poses a problem is, as Bennett states: Spinoza clearly holds that
there are at least two attributes and only one substance (Bennett, 1984:
64).
31
Commentators have tried to solve this apparent problem in dierent
ways, none of which are very satisfying. For example, Bennett claims that
these texts are simply exaggerations of Spinozas view (Bennett, 1984: 624),
while Curley claims the identication ought not be understood as holding
between any individual attribute and the substance, but rather between the
totality of attributes and the substance (Curley, 1988: 30).
A Cartesian Solution
In what follows I would like to suggest an outline for an account which does
not introduce a gap between the attribute and substance, and takes these
crucial pieces of text literally. A fully articulated account would require
addressing issues that are beyond the scope of the present paper (such as the
structure of the innite intellect).
32
The key here is to begin with Descartes
and his theory of distinction and to see how he construes the relationship
between the substance and its attributes. Although I have argued above that
Spinoza diers in important ways from Descartes in his understanding of
31
Bennett, Curley, Gueroult, Donagan and Gram all argue that the identication cannot be
complete. Bennett, Spinozas Ethics, 64; Curley, Geometrical Method, 13; Gueroult, Spinoza I,
50; and Alan Donagan, A Note on Spinoza. Jarrett, however, argues for dierent reasons than
my own that attributes and substance are identical. Charles Jarrett, The Logical Structure of
Spinozas Ethics. Gram on the other hand argues that this problem has in principle no solution:
Moltke Gram, Spinoza, Substance and Predication in Theoria.
32
I do, however, provide such an account in Chapter Three of my dissertation: The Structure of
Spinozas Metaphysics: Attributes, Finite Minds and the Innite Intellect.
526 NOA SHEIN
what a real distinction is, i.e. adopting only its epistemological implications
and not its ontological ones, I want to suggest that he has quite a bit in
common with Descartes on how he construes the relation between an
attribute and the substance.
33
As we saw earlier, Descartes claims that the distinction between an
attribute and its substance (or between two attributes of the same substance)
is only a rational distinction. Nolan explains this by claiming the following:
part of what it means to say that two things are merely rationally distinct is
that they are identical in reality, that they are not two things but one
(Nolan, 1997: 130). To support his claim he points to two pieces of text. The
rst is Article 63 of Part I in the Principles of Philosophy, which we have
already seen and immediately follows the denition of rational distinction:
. . . there is some diculty in abstracting the notion of substance from the
notions of thought or extension, which of course dier from substance merely
by reason [emphasis mine]. What one knows clearly and distinctly is
thinking substance and not substance or thinking. In reality there is just
thinking substance, but when we abstract, in reason, from this clear and
distinct perception, we seem to separate the thinking from its substance.
From the fact that we can separate the thinking from its substance in
thought, we must not conclude that in reality these two can be separated.
The second textual evidence that Nolan oers is from the beginning of the
same article: Thought and extension . . . ought to be conceived as nothing
other than thinking substance itself and extended substance itself, that is, as
mind and body (emphasis mine).
34
Since Thought and Extension are the
principal attributes which Descartes identies as the essence of substance,
the text implies that the substance just is its essence. This is why Thought is
nothing other than the thinking substance itself.
These two texts show that Descartes holds that any given attribute and its
substance are strictly identical in reality. Recall, however, that Descartes
also claimed that a rational distinction holds between attributes of the same
substance. Nolan argues that the letter to an unknown correspondent from
1645 or 1646, shows that Descartes holds that attributes of the same
substance are identical in reality as well:
Thus, when I think of the essence of a triangle, and of the existence of the same
triangle, these two thoughts, as thoughts, even taken objectively dier modally
in the strict sense of the term mode; but the case is not the same with the
triangle existing outside thought, in which it seems to me manifest that essence
and existence are in no way distinct [Italics added].
(Descartes, CSMK, III: 280 AT350)
33
As I mentioned, I am drawing here mainly on Nolans understanding of this relationship.
Nolan, Descartess Theory of Attributes.
34
Nolans translation.
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 527
Descartes here is claiming that the essence of the triangle one of its
attributes and the existence of the triangle another of its attributes are,
outside of thought, identical, even though in thought we can distinguish
between them; that is, we can have an idea of the essence of the triangle and
a separate idea of the existence of the triangle. These ideas, in so far as they
are distinct ideas, are modally distinct. However, to repeat: simply because
we have two ideas of the essence of the triangle and of the existence of the
triangle does not mean that in reality the essence and the existence of the
triangle are distinct. On the contrary, they are in no way distinct. What is
peculiar about the rational distinction, as opposed to real and modal
distinctions, is that in some sense it is not a distinction at all. As Nolan says,
there are no two things that bear a relation to each other, because
substance and attribute are in re the same, i.e. it is only in reason that they
can be taken apart and seen as two things.
35
If the things, i.e. the attributes among themselves or the attribute and the
substance are identical in reality, for Descartes, the question is where can the
diversity arise from? If there is only one thing, how or why does it appear as
two? To answer this, Nolan points back to the letter to the unknown
correspondent:
[We] understand the essence of a thing in one way when we consider it in
abstraction from whether it exists or not, and in a dierent way when we
consider it as existing; but the thing itself cannot be outside our thought
without its existence.
(CSMK III: 280 AT350)
The diversity emerges, then, because we regard the singular substance in
dierent ways we can regard the thing either in abstraction from its
existence or as existing. From our ability to regard the thing in dierent
ways, we come to think of the existence as distinct from the thing.
Descartes, then, believes that, strictly speaking, the attribute and the
substance are identical; that is, only a distinction of reason holds between
them. He posits the same regarding the relationship between two attributes
of the same substance. As I mentioned earlier, Spinoza adopts Descartes
35
In the letter to the unknown correspondent Descartes says the following:
I call it a conceptual distinction that is, a distinction made by reason ratiocinatae. I
do not recognize any distinction made by reason ratiocinantis that is, one which has
no foundation in reality because we cannot have any thought without a foundation.
This might make it seem as though Descartes is claiming that a rational distinction has a
foundation in reality. However, all he is claiming here is that the idea of things that are said to
be rationally distinct have a foundation in reality, not that the distinction has a foundation in
reality; that is, the foundation in reality of the essence of the triangle is the triangle in reality,
and the foundation for the idea of the existence of the triangle is the same triangle. However,
there is no foundation in reality for the distinction between the two, because there are no two
things essence and existence that exist as distinct in reality.
528 NOA SHEIN
position regarding the so-called relationship between attributes and
substance, but at least terminologically will not call the distinction between
the attributes of the same substance a rational distinction. In 1P10Schol
Spinoza claims that the attributes of the one substance are really distinct
from each other. Spinoza uses the term really distinct because, as I have
said, he takes on only the epistemological implication that Descartes
associates with this distinction, namely that the attributes are conceived
apart or one cannot be conceived through the other. Spinoza does not,
however, assume the ontological implications Descartes associates with this
distinction; namely, that what is conceived apart actually exists apart, or
more importantly that what gives rise to this distinction is something
grounded in the object itself. To see that Spinoza adopts Descartes view
regarding the relationship between any given attribute and the substance,
one need only look at those places in the Ethics where he explicitly identies
the attributes with the substance, which we saw earlier (1D4, 1P10Schol,
1P19 and 1P20).
Applying Descartes to Spinoza
In order to do justice to these texts and not dismiss them as an exaggeration,
on the one hand, or commit Spinoza to holding that the one substance is a
super union of attributes, on the other, I propose the following: rst, to
adopt Descartes interpretation of the relation between attribute and
substance and apply it to Spinoza, i.e. hold that there is only a distinction of
reason between the two; second, not to take real distinction in Spinoza to
have ontological implications. This will allow us to maintain a literal
reading of the text while maintaining the simplicity of the one substance;
that is, each attribute is strictly identied with the substance. Furthermore,
1P10Schol ts with this interpretation, since the real distinction which holds
between attributes claims not that there is something in the substance on
account of which they are separated, but only that each attribute must be
conceived through itself and is not conceived through another.
The same question that arose for Descartes arises for Spinoza: if the
attributes and substance are identical in re, where does the diversity arise
from? Here as well, I would like to suggest, without fully arguing for this,
that Spinoza follows Descartes and holds that the multiplicity arises from
the fact that we, nite minds, can conceive the substance in dierent ways.
36
The nite intellect regards the substance in two fundamentally dierent
ways, either as Thought or as Extension. That the nite mind can regard the
substance in these two dierent ways is established axiomatically in 2A2 and
2A4; that is, it is because [m]an thinks [NS: or, to put it dierently, we know
that we think] (2A2) and that [w]e feel a certain body [NS: our body] is
36
Cf. n31.
SPINOZAS THEORY OF ATTRIBUTES 529
aected in many ways (2A4) that the nite mind conceives the substance as
thinking or as extended. As I mentioned, a full argument for it being the
nite intellect that perceives would require treating topics that are beyond
the scope of the present paper. What is important to keep in mind is that this
suggestion stays clear of the problems raised for both the subjective and
objective interpretations. These conceptions of the nite mind are not
something added to the conception of substance; nor is there a gap between
our conceptions of the substance and the substance itself. As we have just
seen, the reason why there is no gap or anything illusory about the
conception of attributes is that attributes are only rationally distinct from
the substance; that is, in re they are the same. To conceive the attribute is to
conceive the substance.
Since I am claiming that attributes are only rationally distinct from the
substance, it seems that perhaps one can conclude that attributes are only
rationally distinct from each other. This potential objection can be
expressed, somewhat crudely, as follows: Thought is identical to God (or
the substance) and Extension is identical to God (or the substance).
Therefore, by transitivity, Thought is identical to Extension. This last step,
however, seems to contradict 1P10Schol, where Spinoza claims that
Thought and Extension are really distinct; that is, not identical. This
objection can be partly addressed by noticing its similarity to the case made
famous by Frege of the Morning Star and Evening Star. With respect to
their referent, the Morning Star and the Evening Star are identical.
However, they are not identical with respect to their sense. They each pick
out, so to speak, the referent dierently. Expressed in Cartesian
terminology, which we saw above, we can say that in re the Morning Star
and the Evening Star are identical, but only distinguished from each other in
reason (namely, by picking out the referent in dierent ways). Similarly, in
re Thought and Extension are identical. As I have suggested, the multiplicity
of attributes arises from the multiple ways in which the mind can regard the
substance. As to the relation between the two attributes, we can follow what
we have just said about the case of the Morning and Evening Star; that is,
Thought and Extension are, in Cartesian terms (not Spinozistic terms)
rationally distinct, i.e. identical in re but distinguished from each other by
reason. Spinoza, of course, does not adopt here the Cartesian terminology.
In 1P10Schol he says that Thought and Extension are really distinct. As I
have emphasized earlier, however, one must not take it that Spinoza here is
using the term real distinction in the way that Descartes does. For Spinoza,
claiming that Thought and Extension are Cartesianally rationally distinct
(i.e. identical in re and distinguished only by reason) does not conict with
claiming that they are Spinozistically really distinct (i.e. one cannot be
conceived through the other). The distinction (the Spinozistically real
distinction) between the attributes is not something that is grounded in the
object. Thought and Extension, then, are identical in re since they arise from
dierent ways of regarding one and the same thing. Nonetheless, Thought
530 NOA SHEIN
and Extension are Spinozistically really distinct, since one cannot be
thought through the other.
CONCLUSION
The main aim of the present paper, then, was to show that although the
subjectivist interpretation, as traditionally conceived, is problematic, the
alternative objectivist interpretations are no less so. If nothing else, this
shows the need for a radically new understanding of the theory of attributes
whose guidelines I have suggested above.
Furthermore, one of the most important conclusions I wish to draw in
this paper is that the subjectiveobjective dichotomy is a false one. One of
the reasons that lead to this apparent dichotomy is that commentators have
failed to appreciate that the answers to the following questions are separate:
Which intellect is it that perceives the essence of substance? and Do
attributes really pertain to the substance or are they only falsely perceived to
pertain to it? Commentators have wrongly assumed that to say that it is the
nite intellect necessarily implies that there is some kind of illusion in
perceiving the attributes as constituting the essence of substance. I have
suggested, however, that one can hold that attributes really do constitute the
essence of substance (because they are identical to it), on the one hand, and
that it is the nite intellect that perceives the essence of substance in multiple
ways, on the other.
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
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