Spinoza In Plain English pt.1: Substance (Opening Definitions)

Matthew Gindin
Sep 16 · 6 min read
Photo by Oliver Sjöström from Pexels

In Paul Auster’s ingenious and moving novel “Mr.Vertigo”, an abused boy is rescued by a traveling magician, a mysterious Hungarian Jew named Mr. Yehudi. Yehudi promises to teach the boy to walk on air -and delivers. Yehudi has a favorite book which goes with him everywhere- a copy of Spinoza’s “Ethics.”

I have little in common with Mr. Yehudi besides being a Jew who loves Spinoza’s book, but love it I do. There are times when I felt like it held all the answers one could need about life, other times when I argued with it or was bewildered by it. I have always read it in awe at what a human intellect can accomplish if it follows the yellow brick road far enough.

There is a big problem with the Ethics, however, which anyone who has read it- or tried to read it through and failed, which I’m sure a much larger number- knows. The Ethics was written in the 1650s using Latin scholastic terminology in a form Spinoza called “geometric order.” This entailed setting forth what he wanted to say like a series of mathematical propositions: definitions, propositions, axioms and scholiums. If that sounds difficult and off-putting, it is. There is a meaning and purpose to it, and those who truly fall in love with Spinoza will come to appreciate it- the crystalline, relentless logical clarity of the Ethics is an essential part of Spinoza’s message.

Nevertheless for those who want to find a way into Spinoza, the form that he put the Ethics into is a wall, not a doorway. To make things worse, most of the introductions to Spinoza focus on his life and basic ideas for a popular audience or are difficult academic books written for serious students of philosophy.

What’s missing is a “plain English” explanation of the Ethics for the average reader. Of course I’m assuming you’re willing to put in some serious, hard work to do so. If that’s true, this note’s for you. If you’re ineterested in a general introduction to Spinoza’s life and works, I wrote one here.

In some places I will follow every line of the Ethics with commentary, and in others I will summarize blocks of the text which go into intricacies of argument which are beyond what most people need, especially their first time through.

Throughout the commentary I will try to suggest more common and, I think, more useful words to translate Spinoza’s Latin than the usual. Some of these will sound off to those of you who are used to standard translations, but try to keep an open mind and see what I’m after- I’ve chosen these words either because they make the text more easy to understand or because they suggest fresh ways of looking at it. No words are perfect, and I realize my choices have flaws just like any other.

I’m sure I’m not the most qualified to do this, and that I will fail both in terms of substance and style in major ways. Nevertheless, as an ancient Jewish text says, “In a place where there is no one doing the job, do that job.” So here I am, let’s go.

First Part of the Ethics

1 Of God

The Ethics has five parts which discuss the nature of God and reality, the nature of the mind and body, the nature of emotion and reason, and the way to freedom and what Spinoza calls “blessedness” or “salvation”, though he is there co-opting Christian words for very different goals.

The translations here are mine, based on Curley and Kisner for the most part. I’m going to go through the first few definitions and propositions in full to give a taste of Spinoza’s writing, then I will begin summarizing blocks of text while letting you know where I am in the actual text for reference. My hope is that after this basic orientation you’ll be able to go through the original yourself.

Definitions

  1. By “cause of itself” I mean that whose essence involves existence or that whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing.

Spinoza first sets out to define his key terms, which will be very useful. This first definition may seem very abstract, but it will be important. What Spinoza means here is that there is something which causes itself, and which we cannot imagine as non-existent. What is that? Well, reality itself of course. Reality causes itself, and we cannot meaningfully speak of reality not existing. Spinoza will use the scholastic term “Substance” for what I am calling Reality, but this is confusing and near-meaningless for most people today. “Substance” is that which is real and which everything else is made of. It is a logically necessary fact that it exists, though we can never perceive it in and of itself. Everything simply must be made out of something, right? That something is Substance, but to avoid using that word which sticks in our mouths, I will call it Reality.

I have one more reason for avoiding using the word “substance.” It suggests that there is a separate something which is the matter everything is made of, like various tools made out of metal. That’s problematic because Substance cannot be separated from its qualities and manifestations- Substance is all of the things it appears as and all the ways it is known. It is not just what stuff is made of, it has qualities and laws by which it operates- it is everything and how everything works, it has “infinite attributes” or limitless qualities and ways of being known. This is why, as we shall see shortly, Spinoza equates it with God. I think if you try out the word Reality with this in mind you will again see that it has its advantages, as imperfect as it may be.

2. A thing is said to be “finite in its kind” if it can be limited by another thing of the same nature. For example, a body is said to be finite because we always conceive bodies that are greater. Similarly, a thought is limited by another thought. But a body is not limited by a thought nor a thought by a body.

Spinoza is setting up his game for later. For now, what we need to understand of this is that most things are “finite in their kind” which means that they are limited by other things which are of the nature to be able to interact with them. For instance a tree is limited by the fire that breaks out on it after a lightning strike. Everything is like that, in fact, except for one thing: Reality itself, which has no outside and cannot be limited by anything. Here Spinoza makes the important and controversial point that the mind does not limit the body or vice versa. This may seem counter-intuitive- don’t we move our arms by thinking? Spinoza will later argue that in fact we do not: arms are moved not by thoughts but by electrical impulses in the nervous system. Similarly, thoughts are not produced by neurons, they’re produced by thoughts. As intriguing as that is, let’s leave it for now- we’ll get back to it in detail later.

3. By substance I mean that which is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e. no concept of any other thing is needed for forming a concept of it.

Here Spinoza defines Substance. If we translate this as Reality it gets a lot clearer I think: Reality is that which is in itself and conceived through itself. Well, duh!

To explain the latter part about not needing a concept of something else with which to understand Substance, think of a car. If you ask yourself, “What is a car?” you will have to say, well, it’s a moving vehicle made of wheels, an engine, and a chassis…Do you see what’s happening here? You need to bring in other concepts to explain a car. But how do you explain what Reality is? Well, it’s what’s real. You see? We could also use another word, like Being or What Is. What is “is”? Well, it is. You don’t need, and in fact can’t use, any other concept to explain what “is” is. It is, that’s all.

To a large extent, Spinoza is dialoguing with Aristotelian and Cartesian conceptions of “substance” which assert that there are different substances or ultimately real things which then have attributes (see pt 2) through which they are known. I will avoid the details of these intra-philosophical arguments here for the most part. Suffice it to say that Spinoza wants to argue that there is only one Reality, only one real thing that everything else is made of and is an expression of.

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