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Spinoza’s Substance Stripped Bare

Duchamps The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors Even (The Large Glass) (1915-23)

(above Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even,” 1913 -23)

Just a Blob of nothing, an intellectual Sleight of Hand…?

Levi, over at Larval Subjects has a well-worded summation of the possible difficulties and assumptions contained in Spinoza’s Proposition 5 (Ethics, part I: ) “Proposition Five: Questions of Individuation”, in particular how they reflect upon just what Individation is. He seems to feel that if one accepts this proposition (and its referenced assumptions) one is by the force of logic to accept a great deal of what follows in Spinoza’s philosophy. So he sees this as something of a keystone. If one can effectively challenge it, the entire edifice of Spinoza thinking is threatened to collapse. I can’t say that I agree with this because I read the rationalistic cohension of Spinoza’s Ethics a little differently than most, but he does raise interesting points.

I commented extensively on the posting (much in greater detail than I expected), so it seemed best to re-present the issues here, with a bit more quoted material. I think it worthwhile to dig into this proposition as Levi has given us the lead to do, but in the end I am not sure as to the final spear point of his objection.

First off, let’s give the proposition, and then I’ll post the context of my comments:

In rerum natura non possunt dari duae aut plures substantiae euisdem naturae sive attributi.

In the nature of things they are not able to be granted two or multiple substances of the same nature or attribute.

I provide the Latin and literal translation so one can see the lexical doubling that Spinoza performing, as well as the “of things” individuation which shows the proposition to be an explanation of things we already perceive as distinction, but Curley translates a bit less literally and much more fluidly,

In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.

The reason for this that Spinoza puts forth is that it is the attribute itself that tells us exactly what a thing is, its essence. It is the attribute which grounds all our other attributve properties. If there were multiple substances which had the same attribute (the same conceptual manner of distinction), there remains no specific additional qualification which distinguishes them from each other. I will reference and cite Della Rocca’s treatment below, for his presentation is a good clean exposition. And it is his argument I will follow. What Spinoza has in mind here is Descartes’ somewhat unspecified assertion that there actually are two kinds of Substance, the Aristotlelian kind of individual things which are dependent upon other things for their existence, and then the soon-to-be Spinozist kind, the kind that is self-caused. The move that Spinoza is making here is turning against the notion that it is Attributes themselves that distinguish things as individual kinds, but rather it is modal expressions alone. Descartes’ two kinds of Substance simply can’t be rationally supported. Unfortunately for the Christian, this leaves of of creation to be literally part of God. There is no gap between God and the world. Once we remove the unjustified kind of Substance inherited from Aristotle, we are just left with an ultimate and immanent ground.

Mammoth Hot Springs

Anyways, that is where Spinoza is going. But what Levi objects to, after a thorough engagment with the problems with the argument is that there seems to be a kind of non-sensicalness of Substance itself, the way that if we say that an object in the world (and he uses his friend Melanie), is stripped of all her qualities, we really are left with nothing at all. What would remain under Spinoza’s description, is somehow blob-like and indistinct. Spinoza has provided us with a concept that seems to do nothing. Here is a quote from Levi’s post, and my consideration that follows:

Levi: ” Suppose I strip my friend Melanie of all her affections or qualities. In striving to think Melanie as a substance, I ignore all of her physical properties, her quirks of thought, her personal history, her mannerisms, her love of okra, etc., so as to think this hypothetical “Melanie-substance” in and through herself. What am I left with at the end of this exercise? Absolutely nothing!. In other words, a substance subtracted from all of its affections turns out to be nothing but a formless void.”

Kvond:…I’m not sure that I follow exactly your objection here. The complaint that you make as to the blobness of Substance is actually very close to the one that Descartes made against Medieval Aristotelian “Prime Matter”, a completely non-quality “stuff” which is suppose to inertly just be there as a support for inhering form and qualities. As Della Rocca tells it, it was this seeming superfluousness of Prime Matter that got Descartes to just do away with it. Instead, a Substance simply had a form, was defined by its form, which in Descartes was its Principal Attribute.

[inserted from Della Rocca's Spinoza  a selection which lays out Descartes' thinking on Substance and attribute in terms of prime matter]:

But why must all the properties of a substance be subsumed under a fundamental feature? Why can’t there be a feature of substance that does not presuppose the principle attribute of the substance, but is nonetheless a feature of that substance? Thus, for example, why can’t an extended substance also having some thinking features, features that cannot be understood through extension? Descartes does not, as far as I know, explicitly address this question, but its clear what his answer would be: there would be no good account what makes this free-floating thinking feature a feature of this extended substance. What would bind this thinking feature to this extended substance? For Descartes, the conceptual connection provided by an attribute furnishes the link to make a particular property of a given substance. Without the link afforded by an attribute, we cannot see a property as belonging to a substance. In other words, Descartes insists that there be this over-arching feature because otherwise there would be no explanation of why a given feature is a feature of a particular substance.

Because the principle attribute helps us to understand all the properties of a substance, it tells us what kind of thing the substance is, what its essence is. And for this reason, purely formal features of a substance do not count as attributes in this sense. Each substance has features, let us say, of existing and being powerful to some degree. But exitence and power are not principal attributes for Descartes. This is because these features do not tell us what kind of thing a substance is and do not tell us what kinds of more particular properties it has.

In this way we can see that on Descartes ontology of substance and attribute, substances are explanatory engines. Each substance has a nature that can be articulated or explained in terms of its principal attribute, and this principal attribute in turn articulates or explains all the properties of the substance. Thus for Descartes each substance is fully conceivable. Everything about a substance must be capable of being understood and what it is understood in terms of is its principal attribute.

This is, of course, a rationalist dimension of Descarte’s ontology, and we can appreciate this dimension by contrasting Descartes’s view with a broadly Aristotelian account of substance. On the Aristotelian account (or at least on the Aristotelian account as it is developed by medieval philosophers such as Aquinas), a corporeal substance consists of prime matter and a substantial form. The substantial form, is in some ways, like a Cartesian principal attribute: it tells us the nature of a substance and the kinds of properties it can have. But the form is not the only constituent of substance. The substantial form must somehow inhere in the subject and this subject is prime matter, a featureless, bare subject for a substantial form. The prime matter is a thing is some sense, but, precisely because it is featureless, it cannot be articulated or explained. Literally, prime matter is no “kind” of thing, and precisely for this reason Descartes rejects the notion as unintelligible (see CM I 91, 92/AT XI 33, 35). Marleen Rozemond sums up the view here nicely:

“Since Descartes eliminates prime matter from the hylomorphic conception of corporeal substance, the result in Aristotelian terms is that a substance just consists in a substantial form. In Descartes own terms, the result is that substance just consists in a principal attribute” (Spinoza, 2008; 38)

Prime Matter, Begone!

[continuing my response] But as Prime Matter was done away with because it lacked explanatory value, we have to ask the same of Spinoza’s overriding Substance itself. If we strip Melanie of all her qualities are we left with Prime Matter, or with Substance, and what would be the difference?

There are a few ways to proceed. As you know, Substance is what it is because it is the only thing that is its own cause, by virtue of nothing lying “outside” of it (I don’t know if you accept this, but it is fundamental to answering the question). As such, it is the only thing which has existence in its very nature (it does not depend on something other than itself to exist), it must, logically and ontologically exist. So, in a certain sense, the question being asked has something of a non-sequitor in it. Because Substance “exists and acts” through its modal determinations, asking what Melanie is (if merely Substance) without her modal determinations, in a way does not follow. In Spinoza’s universe, Melanie must have certain modal properties, given the state of the rest of the universe, which has determined her to be a certain way.

Now there is a kind of aporia we run into here, for in Spinoza’s framework it is not entirely clear why Melanie when she is five years old and has a cool-aid stain on her mouth, and Melanie when she is 33 and has a broken arm, is the very same thing (has the same essence). It is perfectly conceivable that from moment to moment or stage to stage, there are different essences expressing themselves. It seems that only Spinoza’s definition of a body as a specific ratio of motion in communication between parts that restricts this possibility. And because this “ratio” is unspecified and really unidentifiable, this is a rather tenuous barrier. So there is a very real sense in which Spinoza’s depiction can be read as a kind of Occasionalism.

But generally, when thinking about Melanie, sub specie aeternitatis, what she is in or out of existence, this is a modal “essence”, a certain beingness which depends upon a provisional modal interaction with other modal essences, each bringing each other into being in a kind of co-dependent fashion, what Gatens and Lloyd term “horizontally”.

Is this very close to the blob of Prime Matter? It doesn’t seem so. Because Substance itself is an expressional thing, a thing which by its very nature determines itself to exist, if you do the thought experiment and ask what any one modal expression is without its current state of modal expressiveness, one is left with the explanatory ground of Substance, its very capacity to press forward in existence and acts.

Indistinguishable Melanie

Now is this a bit of a slight of hand? Has Spinoza just made up a buried capacity of a hypothetical under- or over- thing? Perhaps one can say that. But what he has in mind (and one cannot undervalue this), is that things must have an explanatory context for what they are. If you are going to say something like:

“Sure, you tell me that Gravity is some mysterious force which causes this apple to fall with such and such a rate at such and such at time, but what then is this apple-event if stripped of all its qualities, its rate and timing?…It is just a blob of a force called Gravity”

If you take away what is being explained, and then ask what good is the explanation, one might really be dissatisfied with the answer. So in answer to what Melanie is in or out of existence requires that we define what she is in existence. And for Spinoza this answer is a conatus, a striving. She is pure striving (expressed in human beings as either appetite or desire). That is her existential essence. It is the diagnosis of this striving that gives weight to Spinoza’s view of Substance as explanatory. What is Melanie’s striving, her conatus, stripped of all the particular “strivings for”? It is the existential strivings of Substance itself. But there is no blobness to it, for the strivings of Substance must be particularized, that is expressed in determined modal forms. Substance does not collapse on itself, or meld into one great sea of potentiality. It is always particularized in concrete, existential manifestation.

You [Levi] bring this up when you conclude:

[Levi writing]:”However, again, we run into the same problem: Is an attribute such as extension thinkable independent of all spatial determinations (modes)? Again, the thought of space without any spatial things turns out to be the thought of nothing or the absence of all determination. The conclusion then would be that the idea of an affectionless substance- such as Spinoza evokes in 1p5 -is an incoherent idea that functions as a sleight of hand, rather than a genuine concept.”

But seem to have inverted the reasoning. It is precisely because one cannot conceive of space without its spatial determinations that Substance must be an expressive grounds of spatial things, in the Attribute of Extension. It is precisely that there are spatial things, and that they can only be understood fully by understanding their cause, that Substance is what it is. It seems that you have reversed the Explanans and the Explanandum, and argued that the Explanans is meaningless without the Explanandum, but it the requirement of the Explanans due to the existence of the Explanandum [the nature of things], that grants it its coherence. It is the very fact of its explanatory nature that Substance logically must express itself in the concrete things that it is explaining, that gives the argument its force.

Michael Della Rocca, Chair of Philosophy at Yale

Michael Della Rocca, Professor of Philosophy at Yale

To end I would like to reprint a lengthy selection from Della Rocca’s book that deals particularly with 1p5 so as to give immediate context to my points, but also to provide a place of comparison for much of the same ground covered by Levi’s also worthwhile summation. At the very least it will give those unfamiliar with Spinoza’s argument one more clear presentation of the issues at hand in the notions of Substance, Attribute and mode, and their possible objections. Its interesting, but when I first got Della Rocca’s book I was a bit disappointed and distracted from it. It possessed none of the verve of his first book, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza (1996): But as I have turned to it in reference, it really has grown on me. In its quietude one can feel the delicate care of Della Rocca’s mind as he weighs the meanings and implications of Spinoza’s assertions, and is invited to consider them as he does.

Thus let’s take 1p5 first: “In Nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.” To prove this proposition, Spinoza considers what is required in order to individuate two substances, i.e. what is required in order to explain their non-identity. For Spinoza, the distinctness between two distinct things must be explained by some difference between them, some difference in their properties. In the case of the individuation of substances, this amounts to the claim that they must be individuated via a difference either in their attributes or in their modes. Thus Spinoza says in 1p4d:

“Two or more distinct things are distinguished from one another, either by a difference in the attributes of the substances or by a difference in their affections.”

In 1p5d, he makes clear that such a difference in properties is needed for two things to be “conceived to be” – i.e. explained to be – “distinguished from one another.”

In insisting on some difference in properties between two things, Spinoza endorses the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. This is a principle – more often associated with Leibniz that with Spinoza – that if a and b are indiscernible, i.e. if a and b have all the same properties, then a is identical to b. One can see that this principle turns on the notion of explaining non-identity and, as such, one can see its roots in the PSR [Principle of Sufficient Reason]. Non-identities, by the PSR, require explanation, and the way to explain non-identity is to appeal to some difference in properties.

Thus two substances could be individuated either by a difference in their attrributes or in their modes. Spinoza dismisses right away any differentiation of substances in terms of their attributes because he says we are considering whether two substances can share an attribute. Thus a case in which substances might have different attributes might seem irrelevant to the case at hand. However, as we will see in a moment, this dismissal may be too hasty. Spinoza then considers whether they can be distinguished by their modes. Spinoza eliminates this possibility as well, offering the following argument.

Since a substance is prior to its modes (by 1p1), we are entitled, and indeed obligated, to put the modes to the side when we take up the matter of individuating substances. Thus, with the modes to one side and with the attributes already eliminated as individuators, it turns out that there are no legitimate grounds for individuating substances with the same attribute, for explaining why they are distinct. Thus, since substances with the same attribute cannot legitimately be individuated, there cannot be any sharing of attributes.

Obviously this argument turns crucially on the claim that we should put the modes to one side. But what justifies this claim? Spinoza appeals here to the notion of priority introduced in 1p1. What exactly does this priority amount to? For Spinoza, as well as Descartes, it is a conceptual priority. One can have the idea of a substance without having ideas of its modes.

Thus, we can see why Descartes would have a problem individuatin, say, two extended substances. All Descartes could appeal to in order to individuate the substances is the modes, but given Descartes’ own explanatory notion of substance, according to which all of a substance’s modes are explained through its attributes, such an appeal is illegitimate.

Of course Descartes might at this point simply give up the claim that the non-identity of substance is explicable. Fair enough. After all, Descartes does not explicitly assert the Principle of the Identity of Indiscernibles. But Descartes’s rejection of prime matter is in the spirit of such a principle. For Descartes, there is no way to articulate what prime matter is precisely because it has no qualities. In the same way, there is no way to articulate what the non-identity of a and b consists in because no qualities are available to do the job of individuation. Thus, even on his own terms, Descartes should feel the force of this Spinozistic argument that rules out a multiplicity of substances sharing an attribute.

But even if substances that share an attribute are not individuated by their modes, perhaps such substances are individuated by attributes they do not share. Spinoza does allow, after all, that a substance can have more than one attribute. So why can’t we have the following scenario: substance 1 has attributes X and Y and substance 2 has attributes Y and Z. On this scenario, while the two substances share an attribute (i.e. Y) they differ with regard to other attributes and can thus be individuated after all. So perhaps then, contrary to 1p5, there can be some sharing of attributes by different substances. This objection was first raised by Leibniz, one of the most acute readers of Spinoza.

This objection is harder to answer than the charge that substances that share an attribute can be individuated by their modes, but Spinoza clearly has the resources to handle this objection too. To see why, let’s assume that Leibniz’s scenario is possible. If so, then attribute Y would not enable us to pick out or conceive of one substance in particular. The thought “the substance with attribute Y” would not be a thought of one substance in particular, and thus attribute Y would not by itself enable us conceive of any particular substance. For Spinoza, such a result would contradict the clause in the definition of attribute according to which each attribute constitutes the essence of substance. As Spinoza says in 1p10s, a claim that he clearly sees as following form the definition of attribute, “each [attribute of a substance] expresses the reality or being of substance.” So for Spinoza, if a substance has more than one attribute, each attribute by itself must enable us to conceive of the substance, and this can by the case only if each attribute that a substance has is unique to that substance. Thus Leibniz’s scenario is ruled out (46-48)

 

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