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Spinoza in Plain English pt.2 Attributes, Modes, God and Freedom (Opening Definitions)

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What are the fundamentals of human experience? In the next few definitions that Spinoza uses to open the Ethics, he wants to show what exactly we human beings directly encounter before we begin theorizing about reality in earnest, for reasons that will become clearer as we go along.

(For a general introduction to Spinoza, see here. If you haven’t already, read pt. 1.) Spinoza is here setting out the fundamental language of his ontology (theory of reality): substance, attribute, mode, God.

Definition 4. By “attribute” I mean that which an intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its essence.

The word “essence” here is confusing, and means “nature” or “the nature of something.”

So by “attribute” Spinoza means that which an intellect perceives as the nature of something. An intellect is just a cognizing mind, or the structure of a cognizing mind.

Spinoza will use the word “attribute” only to refer to an attribute of a substance. And for Spinoza, as we saw in pt. 1, there is only one substance- Reality itself. So an attribute is what we see as making up the nature of Reality. Spinoza thinks the reality we experience has only two attributes for us human beings: thought and extension.

Thought refers to all ideas which appear in consciousness, not just the rumenations we usually call “thought.” Everything I think, and also everything I sense, is in the Spinozist usage a “thought.”

We experience these thoughts not just as information-bearing signs, however, but also as extended things in space. My thought “Columbus” and my perception “tree” are both thoughts, and both appear concomitantly with an attribute that for Spinoza is not a thought- extension in space.

Extension refers to the way that something appears as a spatial entity- not just that it takes up space but also that it moves and interacts with other spatial objects.

I think it’s interesting that it is impossible to imagine a non-spatial thought or a space without a thought in it. Try it.

I like to think of “extension” as covering the laws of physics, or entities as they exist with regards to the laws of physics. This way of thinking resonates with things Spinoza will say in Book Two of the Ethics as we shall see.

5. By “mode” I mean affections of a substance or that which is in another thing through which it is also conceived.

“Mode” is another important word for Spinoza. It means a transformation, or expression, of Reality. A chair, for instance, is a mode of Reality. It’s one way that Reality can be.

Modes are always conceived through other things, however. A chair is conceived through its qualities of color, texture, location, use, weight, etc. Substance, or Reality, is always conceived through itself (as we saw in pt. 1) and attributes are also conceived through themselves (thought is experienced through thought, spatial extension is conceived through spatial extension).

Spinoza’s assertion that space requires itself to be conceived seems right. How could we conceive of spatial extension except by experiencing it?One can not, it seems, have a non-spatial thought of space.

The idea that thought is cognized through thought alone also seems right, even at first it might strike as counter-intuitive. In fact what Spinoza is saying here is rightfully banal, since he is discussing immediately obvious experience- he is saying that mental contents are only conceived through mental contents. We think thoughts, and we experience space- and that’s all. Our experience is just mental contents arrayed in space.

6. By “God” I mean absolutely infinite being, i.e. substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.

Ok, stay with me here. This will get easier. Spinoza defines “God” (which we will see is the same thing as Reality) as “absolutely infinite being.” By “infinite” what he means is “unlimited.” Something “infinite” has no outside and therefore nothing which can limit it. It has laws which are part of its nature, but there is nothing other than Reality that limits Reality. If there was, that too would be part of Reality.

This unlimited being has unlimited attributes — there is nothing to limit what attributes it has. Each attribute expresses “eternal essence” and “infinite essence.” By eternal Spinoza means not lasting forever, but possessing logical necessity. Something that is logically necessary is always true- something can’t be logically true at one time but not at another. “Expressing eternal essence” therefore just means that each aspect of reality is a necessary part of God’s nature. Further, since the attribute is a necessary part of God that follows from God’s very being, it is “infinite”, i.e. it is as unlimited as God is.

God, therefore, possesses unlimited attributes (what could limit them?) which all express God’s nature in a way which is logically necessary (follows from the very nature of God). To translate this into the language we are using (and which will make it seem more obvious), “Reality possess unlimited attributes which express the nature of reality in unlimited ways. These all follow logically from the laws of nature (reality).”

The two attributes we know are thought and extension, which both follow from the nature of God (who is a thinking reality extended in space, as we shall see). These attributes follow from the nature of God, and are unlimited in their expression of God. As we shall see, that “thinking reality extended in space” is also what we normally call the nature, Reality, or the universe.


I say absolutely infinite, and not infinite in its kind. For we can deny infinite attributes to anything that is infinite only in its own kind; but if something is absolutely infinite, whatever expresses essence and involves no negation belongs to its essence.

What Spinoza is getting at here is that God’s attributes are unlimited by anything since God is unlimited by anything, and there is nothing to limit what attributes God has except for God’s nature itself. Also if something is “absolutely unlimited” then whatever expresses its nature without logical contradiction (negation) belongs to its nature. In other words, its nature can be expressed in any way which is not a logical contradiction. For instance a four-cornered square belongs to its nature, but not a three-pointed circle.

All of this abstract discussion is going towards something central for Spinoza’s understanding of God: God’s intellect and actions are determined solely by the logical structure of God’s being and not by God’s “will”, “emotions” or “goals.”

7. A thing is said to be free if it exists solely by the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone. But a thing that is determined by another thing to exist and to operate in a specific and determinate way is necessary or rather compelled.

Here is Spinoza’s first mention of freedom, a key concept in the Ethics. What he is saying here is that one’s actions come from one’s own nature; if they are determined by something external then one is compelled.

As we shall see, for Spinoza only God has true freedom since God’s actions come from God’s nature alone. All creations, however, act on the basis of how they are determined by things outside themselves and are thus compelled. Each creation is in fact created entirely by elements outside itself; no creation is self-made. Its very nature is determined by things other than itself, and its actions are determined by this dependent nature and its interactions with the vast universe of things which are, again, not itself. Therefore no creation can, strictly speaking, have the kind of freedom mentioned here- the freedom of self-determination.

As we shall see, however, there is a type of freedom that human beings can attain.

8. By eternity I mean existence itself insofar as it is conceived as necessarily following solely from the definition of an eternal thing.


Such existence is conceived as an eternal truth just like the essence of the thing, and therefore cannot be explained through duration or time, even if duration is conceived as without beginning or end.

This comes back to the definition of eternity I explained above. For Spinoza “eternity” does not refer to duration in time, but rather to being “eternally true.” For example, E=MC² is eternal.

For a more advanced discussion of this material, see Yitzhak Melamed here. If you’ve made it this far, stick with me! The implications of all of this will get very interesting- and less and less abstract, as we go.

For the next in this series, please click here.



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