You are on page 1of 21

Necessitarianism and Divine Self-Causation in Spinoza

John Grey
Michigan State University
greyjohn@msu.edu

Abstract:
Spinoza is a strict necessitarian, that is, he holds that things could not be different than
they are. His arguments for this view are less clear than is usually acknowledged,
however. After considering accounts of Spinozas reasoning offered by Martin Lin and
Olli Koistinen, I propose an interpretation that fills in important gaps in those accounts.
On my interpretation, Spinoza's conception of the way that God causes itself plays a
crucial role in his argument. As I argue, the power by which Spinoza's God causes itself
is token-identical with the powers of its modes. Spinoza thus sees the way finite things
cause each other as one of the ways in which God causes itself, yet he denies that God
could cause itself in any other way than it does. It is for this reason that he accepts strict
necessitarianism.

Necessitarianism and Divine Self-Causation in Spinoza

How general is the expression that finite beings are modifications or consequences of God! What a gulf
must be filled in here, and what questions must be answered!
Friedrich Schelling (1987, 230)

Spinoza is a strict necessitarian: he claims that things could not be otherwise than they are.1 It is
unclear why Spinoza is a necessitarian, however. As a number of commentators have observed,
Spinozas other principles do not obviously commit him to the view; yet the view is a strange
one indeed, and absent pressure from other parts of his system, there seems to be no good reason
for him to have accepted it. In this paper, I will argue that Spinozas thesis that God is the cause
of itself can be used to make sense of his primary argument for strict necessitarianism.
I will begin in 1 by presenting the strict necessitarian thesis, along with the textual
evidence that suggests Spinoza accepted it. My aim in this section will be to draw out just how
strange the view is vis--vis Cartesian ontology. All things are modes of the one substance, God;
and under the standard constraints of the Cartesian ontology, most of the modes of a substance
are neither essential to it, nor do they follow from its essence. By contrast, on Spinozas view,
particular things follow from Gods nature, and so they could not be otherwise than they are. Yet
this is not entailed by Spinozas view that particular things are modes of God. So why should he
accept it?
In 2, I will argue that the missing explanation for Spinozas necessitarianism is his
conception of the way in which God is causa sui, cause of itself. Put briefly, Spinoza holds

1

References to the Ethics are from Curleys translation Spinoza (1988); where it serves a purpose, I also cite the
page and line numbers from the Gebhardt edition of Spinoza (1925). References to the Letters are from Shirleys
translation of Spinoza (1995). References to Descartes are to Descartes (1985) (CSM I) and Descartes (1984) (CSM
II), with page numbers from Descartes (1904) (AT) where it serves a purpose.

that the various ways in which particular things cause one another are just ways in which God
causes itself; and God could not cause itself in any other way than it does.
My argument here is intended as a friendly but significant amendment to a large family
of interpretations of Spinozas metaphysics of modality. But, more importantly, it also provides
an example of how the thesis that God is self-caused has subterranean connections throughout
the rest of Spinozas system. I will conclude in 3 with a brief discussion of how this point bears
on a larger debate within Spinoza scholarship about what Spinoza could even mean when he
speaks of self-causation.

1
It is useful to begin with a distinction between three views: (1) determinism, the claim that the
way things will be follows necessarily from the way they are and the laws of nature; (2)
moderate necessitarianism, the conjunction of determinism with the claim that the laws of nature
are necessary; and (3) strict necessitarianism, the claim that everything is necessary.2
Strict necessitarianism is stronger than mere determinism. According to determinism,
things could not be otherwise than they are, given the way that things were in the past as well as
the laws of nature. Given the laws of nature and the state of the world on the day Archduke
Ferdinand was assassinated, the mobilization of the Russian army was determined to occur. This
is a strong thesis, but it is weaker than strict necessitarianism, for it leaves open the possibility of
either different natural laws, or different causal sequences of things, or both.
Strict necessitarianism is also stronger than moderate necessitarianism. Moderate
necessitarianism ascribes conditional necessity to things, which is compatible with the possibility
that the conditions for that necessity differ all down the line. It is compatible with moderate

2

The distinction is made well by Martin (2010), and is also observed by Curley & Walski (1999, 241242).

necessitarianism to suppose that the Archduke could have avoided assassination, so long as the
causes and effects involved in the assassination differed accordingly. Had Gavrilo Princips
bullet missed the Archduke, the Russian army might not have mobilized. However, in order for
the bullet to miss, its causes must have differed in some way; and so the causes of those causes
must also have differed; and so on down the line. Strict necessitarianism is stronger than
moderate necessitarianism, then, in that it denies the possibility of any such alternative causal
sequence. Nothing could have been otherwise. Necessarily, Gavrilo Princips bullet hit the
Archduke; necessarily, the Russian army mobilized; and so on down the line.
Given the distinctions just outlined, strict necessitarianism can be formulated as the
conjunction of moderate necessitarianism with the claim that there are no possible alternative
causal sequences of things.3 Since it is clear that Spinoza accepts determinism as well as
moderate necessitarianism, the debate about whether he is a strict necessitarian has focused on
whether or not he thought there could be alternative possible causal sequences of things.
Most commentators agree that Spinoza is a strict necessitarian. However, some
disagreement remains.4 Those opposed to the strict necessitarian interpretation often appeal to
the fact that Spinoza has no good reason to accept the view. This sometimes appears to be one of
the primary motivations for their interpretations. Curley & Walski (1999) note that strict
necessitarianism is extremely counterintuitive, and claim that views which are tremendously
implausible should not be attributed to the great, dead philosophers without pretty strong textual

3

The strict necessitarian thesis may be expressed in a number of ways using the standard modal terms and the
notion of actuality, e.g. Everything possible is actual, Everything actual is necessary, each of which is logically
equivalent in certain strong (but generally unobjectionable) systems of modal logic. I here avoid these formulations
because they might lead to debate about the meaning of the term actual in Spinozas metaphysics (e.g., in Curley
& Walski 1999, 244252), a debate which I think can be sidestepped.
4
For compelling arguments that Spinoza accepts strong necessitarianism, see Allison (1987, 7478); Garrett (1991);
Koistinen (1998, 6170); and Della Rocca (2008, 7678). The loyal oppositionthose who hold that Spinoza
accepts only the weaker thesis of moderate necessitarianismis primarily constituted by Curley & Walski (1999),
though see also Bennett (1984, Ch. 5) and, much more recently, Martin (2010).

evidence (241). Part of my aim here is to remove this motivation by showing that Spinoza had
an extremely good reason to accept strict necessitarianism, a reason that lies at the very heart of
his metaphysical system.
In order to appreciate Spinozas motivation for accepting the strict necessitarian view, its
important to start with a basic picture of his ontology. Although he accepts something very close
to Descartess substancemode ontology, Spinozas picture deviates from Descartess in crucial
ways. Most crucially, on Spinozas view, there is just one substance: God. Everything else is a
mode of the one substance: Particular things are nothing but affections of Gods attributes, or
modes by which Gods attributes are expressed in a certain way (Ip25c). For my purposes here,
Ill simply assume that we should take Spinoza fairly literally when he says this.5 At the very
least, this means that particular things inhere in God in the manner that (to take an example from
Descartes) shape and motion are related to the corporeal substance in which they inhere
(CSM I, 214).6
So, does the ontological thesis that all things inhere in God give Spinoza reason to hold
the strong necessitarian thesis that everything is necessary? It is helpful here to draw on the
Scholastic distinction between the properties and accidents of a substance.7 A mode is a property

5

Spinozas ontology can be understood in a variety of ways that are all more or less consistent with the text. For
example, Curley (1969, 1988) reads the claim that all things are modes of God in a very weak sense, as meaning that
all things are governed by laws of nature. Melamed (2009, 2013) argues, against Curley, that we should take it in the
most literal sense, such that particular things not only inhere in, but are predicable of, God. And Carriero (1995)
develops a middle position according to which particular things inhere in, but are not predicable of, God. I will
assume only that particular things inhere in God, since I dont think going the further step of viewing them as
predicable of God will make any difference to the debate about necessitarianism.
6
Descartes provides a definition of modes at CSM I, 211, but it is at that point difficult to see how he wants us to
understand the distinction between modes and attributes. Fortunately, we receive several examples of modes (e.g., a
stones being in motion and square-shaped) in the following pages (CSM I,
214-216). Descartes finds occasion to further clarify his meaning in his Comments on a Certain Broadsheet (CSM
I, 297298), in which he rejects as absurd the thought that the mind could be a mode of a corporeal substance.
Modes are qualities that are naturally ascribable to something but that are nevertheless susceptible of change.
This suggests that for Descartes, the modes of a substance never follow from its essence, and thus are never
properties in the Scholastic sense (discussed below).
7
As is frequently done in the literature, e.g., Melamed (2009, 6769).

of a substance when it follows from the essence of that substance that it has that mode. For
example, the mode of having some shape or other is a property of an extended substance a
candle, say since the extended thing must have a shape in virtue of being extended. Note that
on this definition, a substance could not lose any of its properties without its very essence
becoming different. By contrast, a mode is an accident of a substance when it inheres in the
substance but it does not follow from its essence. The mode of being candle-shaped is an
accident of the candle, since the candle could lose this mode without ceasing to exist.
It might be expected that Spinoza would hold that particular things are accidents of God.
Yet on a fairly common (and, I think, correct) reading of Spinoza, all of the modes of God are
properties rather than accidents. If so, the strict necessitarian thesis is true, for modes that follow
from the essence of a necessary substance must themselves be necessary.8 The textual evidence
for that view has sometimes been thought cut-and-dried. Take Spinozas assertion that:
From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow [sequi debent] infinitely many
things in infinitely many modes, (i.e., everything which can fall under an infinite
intellect). (EIp16)
Many commentators take this to be the moment in the Ethics at which Spinoza unequivocally
commits himself to necessitarianism.9 After all (the thought runs), since Gods nature is
necessary, surely that which must follow from it is also necessary. So, infinitely many things
in infinitely many modes, presumably all things, are necessary.
Yet doubts I think reasonable doubts have been raised on this score. The main
problem is that it is not clear what Spinoza means when says that everything which can fall

8

The interpretation that all particular things are properties (rather than mere accidents) of God is defended by
Melamed (2009, Forthcoming), and I think it is at work in the interpretation of Garrett (1991); note his discussion of
essences, properties, and accidents (201202). Koistinen (2003, 301303) makes the same point in different terms,
claiming that Spinoza is a superessentialist; more on this possibility below.
9
For example, Garrett (1991, 205209), Koistinen (1998, 62), and (implicitly) Viljanen (2008, 427-428).

under an infinite intellect is necessary. An infinite intellect might carve nature at different joints
than does a finite one. An infinite intellect might comprehend each thing including finite
particulars or it might only comprehend everything that is, it might comprehend nature as
an infinite whole without comprehending any finite particulars. Yet if an infinite intellect is blind
to the finite, then Ip16 does not tell in favor of strict necessitarianism.10 Indeed, it might tell
against that view. If finite particulars are mere accidents of Gods attributes, then they can be at
best conditionally necessary. The necessity of divine nature spoken of in the quoted passage
might reasonably be taken to apply only to infinite modes, such as laws of nature or essences of
things.
So it is not clear from EIp16 alone where Spinoza stands. There are other passages,
however, that taken together push very hard toward the strict necessitarian reading. The most
commonly cited passages include:
EIp29: In nature there is nothing contingent, but all things have been determined from the
necessity of the divine nature to exist and produce an effect in a certain way.
EIp33: Things could have been produced by God in no other way, and in no other order
than they have been produced.
The first passage (Ip29) expresses at least moderate necessitarianism: all things are determined to
exist, and to have the properties that they have, by prior things and the necessary laws of (divine)
nature. The second passage, however, expresses the claim that there are no alternative possible
causal sequences. Taken together, the two passages entail strict necessitarianism. Where Ip29
says that the future is necessitated by what happened in the past, Ip33 says that the entire causal
sequence of things past, present, and future could not have been otherwise than it was, is,

10

See Wilson (1983). Martin (2010) applies a similar (though more clearly developed) line of interpretation to
criticize necessitarian readings of Spinoza.

and will be. By extension, each particular thing necessarily has the properties and relations that it
has. Nothing could have been otherwise than it is.
It may not be clear why I say that the first passage, Ip29, only commits Spinoza to
determinism. How (you might ask) could the bald claim that nothing is contingent leave any
room for things having been otherwise? For this reason, Lin (2012, 419420) takes Ip29dem to
be Spinozas main argument for necessitarianism. He suggests that we read the argument as
follows:
1. Whatever exists (other than God) is a mode of God. (by Ip15)
2. God exists necessarily. (by Ip11)
3. The existence of the modes follows from the divine nature. (by Ip16)
4. The effects produced by the modes follow from the divine nature. (by Ip26)
5. Whatever follows from something necessary is itself necessary. (suppressed premise)
6. Therefore, there is nothing contingent.
This all looks good until we hit premise (5), that whatever follows from something necessary is
itself necessary. (Lin somewhat cagily lists this as a suppressed premise.) It is certainly a
plausible principle, but Spinoza invokes a distinction that makes it irrelevant in this context.
Spinoza divvies up the ways in which things can follow from Gods nature into two categories:
either insofar as Gods nature is considered absolutely, or insofar as it is considered to be
determined to act in a certain way. We can think about this as the difference between the way in
which an eternal truth or necessary law of nature comes into existence and the way in which a
particular individual comes into existence. Particular individuals always come to exist in virtue,
at least partly, of other particular individuals. And indeed, in the proposition just before this
(Ip28dem), Spinoza has made clear that when something is caused by Gods nature, insofar as it

is considered to be determined to act in a certain way, he means that it is caused by another


particular thing, another finite mode (to use Spinozas terminology). So we are left with a picture
in which there is a totally determined sequence of particular things unfolding according to
necessary laws of nature. But this provides no justification for ruling out alternative possible
sequences. In other words, although Ip29 seems to express strict necessitarianism, Spinozas
argument here only establishes moderate necessitarianism.
Again, I agree with Lin (and many others) that Spinoza is committed to strict
necessitarianism. The problem is that neither of the quoted arguments get us quite there. And
indeed Spinoza seems to have realized this, for he adds yet another argument in this vein a few
pages later, at EIp33. Individually, I dont think that any of these passages would secure a strict
necessitarian reading, but taken together, the evidence in favor of this reading seems to me
overwhelming. (Its as though Spinoza wants to be a strict necessitarian but cant summon up a
good argument for it.) Yet even if one thinks there is good reason to believe that all things are
determined, and that the laws of nature are necessary, it seems downright epistemically
immodest to make the further claim that everything is necessary. The natural question to ask is,
why would Spinoza take up this view? I say that the demonstration of Ip33 holds part of the
answer to this question, and his conception of the relation between God and finite things holds
the rest.
The demonstration of Ip33 reads:
For all things have necessarily followed from Gods given nature (by Ip16), and have
been determined from the necessity of Gods nature to exist and produce an effect in a
certain way (by Ip29). Therefore, if things could have been of another nature, or could
have been determined to produce an effect in another way, so that the order of nature was

different, then Gods nature could also have been other than it is now, and therefore (by
Ip11) that [other nature] would also have had to exist, and consequently, there could have
been two or more Gods, which is absurd (by Ip14c1). So things could have been
produced in no other way and no other order, etc., q.e.d.
This argument is much less complicated than the previous one. Hewing closely to the text, lets
break the argument into its four main steps:
1. All things have necessarily followed from Gods nature and been determined by Gods
nature to exist and produce a certain effect in a certain way. (Ip16, Ip29)
2. So, if things had followed from Gods nature in a different way or been determined by
Gods nature to produce a different effect, Gods nature would be different. (from 1)
3. Gods nature could not have been different than it is. (Ip11)
4. So, things could not have been produced in any other way, or any other order. (from 2, 3)
Step (2) is the most important part of the argument, since it allows us to infer a difference in
Gods nature from a difference in things. Yet this step is mysterious. Finite things are merely
modes of God (Ip25c), and modes depend upon their substance; substance does not depend upon
its modes. It ought to be possible for the modes to vary without entailing any change in Gods
nature. That is, absent some stronger connection between God and its modes, there ought to be
possible alternative causal sequences of modes even though Gods nature could not be other than
it is. Spinoza denies this possibility, claiming instead that if things could have been of another
nature, or could have been determined to produce an effect in another way...Gods nature could
also have been other than it is now. The problem we face is to explain why he claimed this.11


11 [Discuss: Charles Jarrett, Spinoza on Necessity, in Cambridge Companion to Spinozas
Ethics, edited by O. Koistinen (Oxford: OUP, 2009), pp. 118-139.]

10

There have been some attempts to provide such an explanation. The best of these seems
to me to be offered by Koistinen (2003, 300304), who rightly recognizes that an important part
of Spinozas argument for necessitarianism is the premise that all of the modes that a substance
has, it has necessarily.12 But Koistinens explanation of why Spinoza held this view is somewhat
speculative; he attempts to derive this thesis from the causal independence of substance
combined with the claim that a substance can instantiate accidental modes only in virtue of
causal dependencies upon other substances (3023). Therefore, since Spinozas God is causally
independent, it can have no accidental modes. So each of Gods modes follows necessarily from
its nature.
This argument gets the logical job done, but I do not think there is much in the way of
textual evidence that Spinoza would have accepted such reasoning. It is not apparent in the
relevant demonstrations (of Ip16, p29, and p33), and the premise that a substances accidental
properties could arise only via interactions with other substances is less plausible than Koistinen
indicates. He explains,
The belief in contingent properties is, I believe, founded on the assumption that the
properties of a substance can be divided to those that somehow follow from the nature of
the substance and to those that somehow depend on their interaction with other things. ...
But when a thing is seen as causally closed, the naturalness of the distinction between
contingent and necessary properties vanishes. (303)
There is an allure to this line of argument its true, for instance, that many common accidental
or contingent properties are relational and extrinsic. Yet the category of accidental properties was
invented in part to account for temporary intrinsic properties, and temporary intrinsics need not

12

Koistinen calls this view superessentialism to develop some affinities that it bears to some contemporary work in
the philosophy of modality. Given the Scholastic distinction between essence, property, and accident, this name is
more confusing than useful for my purposes. I elide it.

11

be instantiated in virtue of interaction with any other substance. (Sitting and standing are two
standby examples of temporary intrinsics that do not seem to require causal interaction with
other substances; but Greek mythology includes more interesting cases, such as Zeuss turning
himself into a swan or a shower of gold.) Although I concur with the overall aim of Koistinens
account, then, we need further explanation for why Spinoza would accept the premise that if a
substance has a mode, it has that mode necessarily.

2
If we want to understand the pressure Spinoza felt to accept strict necessitarianism, theres no
better place to start than at the beginning. He writes,
Id1: By cause of itself I understand that whose essence involves existence, or that whose
nature cannot be conceived except as existing.
A bit later, he applies this definition to show that a substance must be self-caused:
Ip7d: A substance cannot be produced by anything else (by Ip6c); therefore it will be the
cause of itself, i.e. (by Id1), its essence necessarily involves existence, or it pertains to its
nature to exist, q.e.d.
This sounds like its building up to a standard ontological argument for the existence of God, and
in some ways it is.13 But there is something deeper at work here, for Spinoza does not hold that
the sense in which God causes itself is merely negative as in, not caused by another. Rather,
he holds that there is a positive sense in which God is the efficient cause of itself. The striking

13

Spinozas not-quite-ontological argument appears at Ip11dem1, and (as expected) Ip7 features promi- nently in it.
But Ip11dem1 is far from persuasive: conceive, if you can, that God does not exist. Therefore (by Ia7) its essence
does not involve existence. But this (by Ip7) is absurd. Spinoza seems to recognize that this argument wants
fortification, so he adds three additional arguments. See Garrett (1979), Barcan Marcus (1995), and Lin (2007) for
discussion of Spinozas ontological argument; Garretts and Lins papers, especially, outline the logical difficulties
that Spinozas argument faces (273-275), highlighting the importance of Spinozas other arguments for filling in
these gaps.

12

claim comes in a note appended to Ip25, just prior to his claim that particular things are modes of
God:
God is the efficient cause, not only of the existence of things, but also of their essence.
...[I]n a word, God must be called the cause of all things in the same sense in which he is
called the cause of himself. (EIp25 & 25s, emphasis added)
I say this is striking because it suggests that when Spinoza speaks of God as self-caused, he
means more than merely that nothing else caused God to exist. The sense in which God causes
itself is the same as the sense in which God causes things, and its clear that Spinozas God is not
the cause of things in a merely negative sense. God is the efficient cause of all things. But the
passages just quoted then also suggest that God is the efficient cause of itself.
Now, this is a mysterious claim. What could it mean to say that something is its own
efficient cause? Doesnt efficient causation require that the cause be prior in time to its effect?
These are important questions, and Ill return to them later. For now, however, I want to show
that Spinozas thesis that God causes itself in the same way that it causes all things can provide a
nice explanation for his strict necessitarianism.
The explanation has two steps. First, if Gods act of causing itself could be different, then
Gods nature could be different. Second, if the causal sequence of finite things could be different,
then Gods act of causing itself could be different. I will argue that Spinoza held both of these
views; together they account for the puzzling step in the argument for necessitarianism at
Ip33dem.
The first conditional can be gotten easily. God is the cause of itself (Ip7dem). Yet Gods
causal power is its essence, and it is this power by which [God] and all things are and act

13

(Ip34dem). So, Gods act of causing itself partly constitutes Gods essence. Therefore, if this act
of self-causation could be different, eo ipso Gods very nature could be different.
The second conditional requires some philosophical work. Suppose, per impossibile, that
the causal sequence of finite things were different than it in fact is. One way of doing this would
be to suppose that, say, Gavrilo Princips bullet missed the Archduke because an Austrian soldier
happened to catch sight of Princip in time to stop him (along with all of the other changes in the
worlds causal history that would be required to generate this different outcome). Another way of
doing this would be to suppose that there were a sequence of wholly different things, such that in
this alternative sequence there would be nothing even remotely like Princip, his bullet, or
Archduke Ferdinand. It is not relevant for the sake of the argument, so for the sake of clarity lets
consider the former case.
In the existing sequence of finite things, the Archduke was assassinated. In the alternative
sequence, he was not. I claim that, on Spinozas view, Gods act of self-causation could not
conceivably be the same in both cases. His conception of the connection between Gods power
and the power of finite things requires that the two acts of self-causation be different in the two
different cases. The reason for this is that Spinoza takes the (token) causal activity of finite
things to be the (token) causal activity of God, insofar as God is modified in a certain way.14
This idea is absolutely fundamental to Spinozas account of how God causes things. It
first appears in the propositions that constitute the foundation of Spinozas theory of modes in
Ethics I (roughly p22p28), and it plays an important role the arguments for key propositions in

14

There are two distinct locutions that Spinoza uses to express the same thought: (1) insofar as God is modified
by...; and (2) insofar as God is considered to be modified by... He also sometimes uses the term affected instead
of modified, but in the relevant contexts they are clearly meant to express the same relation. That these locutions
are intended to by synonymous is made clear by their deployment together at Ip28dem. If Spinoza intended these
distinct locutions to have different meanings, they could not work together in the way that they do in his argument
there.

14

every subsequent book of the Ethics.15 There are many passages that support this reading of
Spinoza, but two are especially straightforward. By way of explaining how God is the efficient
cause of finite things, Spinoza writes:
[Particular things] follow from, or [are] determined to exist and produce an effect by
God...insofar as [God] is modified by a modification which is finite and has a determinate
existence. (EIp28dem)
So God causes one mode, x, by constituting another mode, y, such that y is the cause of x. In
other words, God causes its modes by way of its modes causing each other. But the only way that
this picture makes sense is if the causal power of Gods modes is the causal power of God. The
fact that y causes x need not preclude the fact that God causes x, for ys causal power is Gods
causal power.
Another passage in this vein has already been quoted, but merits closer attention:
...from the necessity alone of Gods essence it follows that God is the cause of himself
(by Ip11) and (by Ip16 and Ip16c) of all things. Therefore, Gods power, by which he and
all things are and act, is his essence itself, q.e.d. (Ip34dem, emph. added)
We should take seriously Spinozas claim that when things act, it is Gods power doing the work.
Yet Spinoza does not seem to think that the action of a finite thing is merely an occasion for God
to exercise its power; nor does he seem to think that finite things act in mere concurrence with
Gods acts. Rather, the causal power of a finite thing is identical with the causal power of God,
insofar as that thing is a modification of God.16 I propose that we should understand the situation

15

See, e.g., IIp56 & 810; IIIp12; IVp1 & 4; Vp36 & 36c.
There is some difficulty in expressing the relation that the power of finite things bears to the power of God
according to this picture. Viljanen (2011, 74) is close to the mark when he says that finite things...can quite
plausibly be described as specifically modified portions of the total power of nature. But this cannot be quite right.
God cannot on Spinozas view have parts (or portion), or else God would be dependent upon those parts (Ip13).
Somehow, then, the power of a finite thing is not distinct from Gods power, but neither is it a part of Gods power.
16

15

as follows: the way in which finite modes cause each other is one of the ways in which God
causes itself.
Return to the Archdukes assassination. The bullet that killed the Archduke was a mode
of God, and its causal power was the causal power of God modified in a certain way. Now, were
it possible for the bullet not to have killed the Archduke, there would be two possible causal
sequences of things: one in which the bullet hits the Archduke, and another in which it misses.
But if there are two possible causal sequences, then there are two possible ways in which finite
modes could cause each other, and (by extension) two possible ways in which God could cause
itself. So, if the causal sequence of finite things could be different, Gods act of self-causation
could be different. This was the second conditional to be established.
To sum up: Spinoza accepts that if Gods act of causing itself could be different, then
Gods nature could be different. He also accepts that if the causal sequence of finite things could
be different, then Gods act of causing itself could be different. Together, these entail that if the
causal sequence of finite things could be different, then Gods nature could be different. This
makes it plain why Spinoza would accept the otherwise puzzling step in his argument. The way
in which things follow from and are determined by Gods nature is by participating in Gods
act of self-causation. Although God is metaphysically prior to the sequence of finite things, that
sequence is nonetheless necessary, since it is one of the ways in which God causes itself. These
background assumptions account for the inference from (1) to (2) in the paraphrased version of
the argument I gave above.


My suspicion is that further clarification of this relation would require a detailed examination of Spinozas theory of
aspectual predication.

16

3
Some of what I have said here bears upon a recent debate about how best to understand
Spinozas notion of God as self-caused. On a fairly common, traditional interpretation, all that it
means to be self-caused is to be causally independent (as we saw Koistinen suggest above).
Bennett (1984, 60), for instance, writes that causal self-sufficiency is clearly part of [Spinozas]
concept of substance, and he seems to take that as implying [...] that it cannot be acted on in any
way by anything else. Recent commentators have wanted to say more. Della Rocca (2008, 50
51) attempts to make sense of Gods self-causation by arguing that Spinoza took all causal
relations to be reducible to conceptual or explanatory relations. He writes, [T]o say that a thing
is self-caused is nothing more than saying that it is self-explanatory. [...] This is in keeping with
[Spinozas] rationalist commitment to the intelligibility of all things, including God. Della
Roccas reading has much to commend it, for it deftly reduces away the notion of causation
(which involved a variety of worries about time and dependence), replacing causal talk with talk
about explanation and intelligibility. Fewer eyebrows are raised over the notion of selfexplanation than over the notion of self-causation.
Mogens Laerke, however, has recently argued that this notion of self-explanation cannot
really be what Spinoza is up to when he speaks of self-causation. Lrke (2011, 456457) argues:
[I]f self-causation could be reduced to a conceptual relation in the way that Della Roccas
overall interpretive strategy suggests, this would imply that the connotations of efficient
causation are ultimately evacuated from the fundamental understanding of Gods
necessary existence and that self-causation reduces to something like formal causation.

17

The thought is that if self-causation amounted to nothing more than self-explanation, then
Spinozas repeated and emphatic uses of notions such as power and efficient causation turn out
to have little or no content.
The interpretation Ive provided here weighs in favor of Laerkes argument. Della
Roccas interpretation is supposed to have a great advantage in being able to explain why
Spinoza would accept necessitarianism. Conceptual connections are generally supposed to be
necessary, but the individuals that fall under, and exemplify, those connections are generally not
supposed to be necessary. Why would Spinoza think that they were? Roughly speaking, Della
Roccas answer is that Spinoza conflates individuals with their power, then conflates their power
with that which follows from their essence or concept. Spinoza is supposed to have reduced
individuals to concepts.
I agree with Laerke that this sort of idealism, with its shades of Leibniz, makes for an
unlikely reading of Spinoza. If an alternative interpretation can explain Spinozas
necessitarianism without reducing causation to conceptual connection, that speaks well of the
interpretation. Part of what I have shown here is that there is a way to take Spinozas conception
of God as causa sui to explain his necessitarianism without requiring us to reduce causation to
conceptual connection.

18

References

Allison, H. E. (1987). Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction. New Haven: Yale University Press,
revised ed.
Barcan Marcus, R. (1995). Spinoza and the ontological argument. In Modalities (pp. 163176).
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bennett, J. (1984). A Study of Spinozas Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Carriero, J. P. (1995). On the relationship between mode and substance in Spinozas
metaphysics. Journal of the History of Philosophy 33, 245273.
Curley, E. (1969). Spinozas Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press.
(1988). Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinozas Ethics. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Curley, E., & Walski, G. (1999). Spinozas necessitarianism reconsidered. In R. Gennaro, &
C. Huenemann (Eds.) New Essays on the Rationalists (pp. 241263). New York: Oxford
University Press.
Della Rocca, M. (2008). Spinoza. New York: Routledge.
Descartes, R. (1904). Ouvres de Descartes. C. Adam and P. Tannery (Eds.) Paris: Leopold Cerf.
(1984). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume II. J. Cottingham, R.
Stoothoff, & D. Murdoch (Eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
(1985). The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, Volume I. J. Cottingham, R. Stoothoff,
& D. Murdoch (Eds.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Garrett, D. (1979). Spinozas ontological argument. Philosophical Review 2, 198223.

19

(1991). Spinozas necessitarianism. In Y. Yovel (Ed.) God and Nature in Spinozas


Metaphysics (pp. 191218). Leiden: Brill.
Koistinen, O. (1998). On the consistency of Spinozas modal theory. Southern Journal of
Philosophy XXXVI, 6180.
(2003). Spinozas proof of necessitarianism. Philosophy and Phenomenological
Research LXVII (2), 283310.
Lrke, M. (2011). Spinozas cosmological argument in the Ethics. Journal of the History of
Philosophy 49 (4), 439462.
Lin, M. (2007). Spinozas arguments for the existence of god. Philosophy and
Phenomenological Research LXXV (2), 269297.
(2012). Rationalism and necessitarianism. Nous 46 (3), 418448.
Martin, C. (2010). A new challenge to the necessitarian reading of Spinoza. Oxford Studies in
Early Modern Philosophy V, 2570.
Melamed, Y. Y. (2009). Spinozas metaphysics of substance: The substance-mode relation as a
relation of inherence and predication. Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 78,
1782.
(2012). Spinoza on inherence, causation, and conception. Journal of the History of
Philosophy 50, 365-386.
Rosen, G. (2010). Metaphysical dependence: Grounding and reduction. In B. Hale, & A.
Hoffmann (Eds.) Modality: Metaphysics, Logic, and Epistemology (pp. 109135).
Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schaffer, J. (2009). On what grounds what. In D. Chalmers, D. Manley, & R. Wasserman
(Eds.) Metametaphysics (pp. 347383). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

20

Schelling, F. W. J. (1987). Philosophical investigations into the essence of human freedom and
related matters. In E. Behler (Ed.) Fichte, Jacobi, Schelling: The Philosophy of German
Idealism. New York: Continuum.
Spinoza, B. (1925). Opera. C. Gebhardt (Ed.) Heidelberg: Carl Winters Universittsverlag.
(1988). The Collected Works of Spinoza. E. Curley (Ed. and Trans.) Princeton: Princeton
University Press.
(1995). The Letters. S. Shirley (Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.
Viljanen, V. (2008). On the derivation and meaning of Spinozas Conatus doctrine. Oxford
Studies in Early Modern Philosophy Vol. 4, 89112.
(2011). Spinozas Geometry of Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Wilson, M. D. (1983). Infinite understanding, scientia intuitiva, and Ethics I.16. Midwest
Studies in Philosophy 8, 184186.

21