Spinoza and Substance: God and the World, Minds
Spinoza was enormously influenced by Descartes. He is like Descartes, a
mechanical philosopher, whose aim is to provide an intelligible
alternative to the Scholastic "substantial forms" and occult qualities in
terms of matter in motion. Spinoza holds that the essential difference
between minds and bodies is that minds think and bodies are extended.
In one, truly spectacular way, however, he modified the Cartesian
philosophy so drastically as to make it a different philosophy. What
Spinoza did was to take the Cartesian definition of substance seriously.
We may as well talk about substance ourselves for a moment. The term has
come up before. When Descartes says in the Meditations, I am a
thinking thing, this is a non-technical way of saying "I am a substance
whose essence is to think." If a substance is a thing, its essence
is that set of properties which it must continue to have to preserve its
identity as that very thing. So you are a thing and part of your essence
is to be alive. When you die, thus losing that property, you cease to be
this particular individual. This is one reas on why people take death so
seriously. We saw Descartes using this idea of essence and accident when
he investigated the wax, and decided that the essential properties of the
wax were extension, flexibility and changeability. We can trace this
machinery of substance, essence and accident all the way back to
Aristotle. Perhaps the most important feature of substance is independent
existence. This bear can survive the death of that tree. This piano may
survive the destruction of that saxophone. Thus the exi stence of the bear
is independent of the tree. The existence of the piano, independent of
that of the saxophone. Substance is a thing and it has properties.
Properties cannot exist independently. they need substances to inhere in.
The whiteness and flexibility of the paper cannot exist without the
paper. In linguistic terms, substance is the subject, properties are
adjectives predicated of that subject. Modes are determinate modifications
of substances. Some modes are simple, others complicated collections of
Now what Spinoza does is to take the definition of Cartesian substance
as that which exists independently and take this seriously. Descartes had
said that there were three classes of substances, God, minds and bodies.
Now Cottingham argues that for Des cartes, bodies are really modifications
or modes of one material substance, matter. There are, however, many
minds, and then there is God. The only trouble with this picture is that
minds and bodies are completely dependent on God for their existence. The
y may not depend on one another, but they surely depend on God, who, from
instant to instant preserves the universe and everything it in it in
existence. Spinoza considered this and announced that there really was
only one substance, namely God.
and the World
This doctrine that there is only one substance has astonishing and
revolutionary consequences. The first of these is that the created world
is not a separate substance from God. Rather it is an aspect of God. Thus
Spinoza denies that God is a creator. He is here rejecting not only
Descartes' view of the relation between God and the world, but the whole
medieval Judaeo-Christian-Islamic tradition! Since the idea of a creator
God is central to Jewish and Christian (and Islamic) belief, though
Spinoza clearly believes in God, he was labeled an atheist by many of his
contemporaries. Later in the century, John Toland would coin the English
word Pantheist to describe something very much like Spinoza's view.
Spinoza's doctrine that there is only one substance also has
implications for the status of bodies and minds. Since there is only one
substance, minds and bodies must be modifications of that one substance.
Or, more precisely, God has infinite attribut es, two of which are being a
thinking thing and being an extended thing, and minds are modifications of
God's attribute as a thinking thing, and bodies are a modification of God
as an extended thing. How are bodies and minds related? Well, in one
sense, they are two aspects of the same thing. How are these two aspects
related? Well, this is a bit more vague and tricky. The mind is an idea,
and every idea has a correlated object or ideatum. The body is that
corresponding object. There is no causal interact ion in Spinoza's view
between the mind and the body or the body and the mind, but as
Cottingham's discussion suggests, it is not entirely clear how Spinoza
manages to explain even the appearance of two way causal interaction.
It is quite fascinating to see the terrible reaction which these doctrines
received from Spinoza's contemporaries. They attacked him as atheistic and
materialistic, basically lumping him together with Hobbes, who was the
other great philosophical villain of the age.
Two views of
There are two poles in views about God. One pole is the view that God
is a person like us. If you take the view that some children have of a
bearded man seated on a throne, you even get the idea that God has a body
and is male rather than female. As vi ews of God become more
sophisticated, the idea that God has a human like body disappears. Still,
if God has properties like being intelligent, merciful, answering prayers,
being in a personal relationship with Mary K. in Oklahoma City and so on,
he is sti ll like us, and we are like him. On this view, we can make deals
with God. "If I win this battle," said Henry V at Agincourt, "I will build
a Church here." God obligingly allowed the English to slaughter the French
army. Henry built the church. The deal w as consummated. One typical
version of the 'like us' view is that God is a king. You might think of
Handle's famous Hallelujah chorus in the Messiah: God is "Lord of
lords, King of Kings "-- "And he shall reign for ever and ever!" God is a
monarch whose commands must be obeyed, and who intervenes in human
affairs to punish and reward. Descartes has a very sophisticated version
of the 'like us' view. Our soul is God's image and the stamp of his
workmanship is on it. John Locke, too, as we shall see, shares this view.
By using reason, we can see what end or purpose God intended in creating
This 'like us' or near pole of the views about God gives rise to a
particular kind of argument for God's existence -- the argument for design
or teleological argument ("telos" means 'end' in Greek). The idea is that
just as every machine we know of has a machine maker, the world itself
being a great machine, it too must have a maker. As David Hume pointed out
in the middle of the eighteenth century in his Dialogues Concerning
Natural Religion, this argument depends for its force on the
principle that like effects are produced by like causes. So God must be
like a machine maker. From His similarity to a machine maker we can deduce
that He has foresight and intelligence, wisdom and benevolence. We can
deduce this from the fact that machine makers demonstrate intelligence and
foresight, wisdom and benevolence in designing machines which serve some
end or purpose of those who are going to use the machines they create.
Since God is a maker of a vastly more complicated machine, He must have
these sa me properties to a correspondingly greater degree. Over the last
three centuries, this has been perhaps the most popular argument for the
existence of God.
The other pole of the views about God is the remote, that God is not
like us at all. This view is sometimes called the God of the philosophers.
Aristotle's God cares not a fig for this world. His God is not even aware
of this world. It is a perfect bei ng, emersed in contemplation of Itself.
The rest of the world longs for this perfection. Spinoza's God is like
this in being utterly remote. Spinoza rejects with scorn the notion that
God is anything like us. But why would anyone adopt this view -- the