My primary research interest is in the role of the “human point-of-view” in Spinoza’s philosophy. On my view, Spinoza pursues his ultimate practical aim of improving the lives of human beings by attempting to render the world intelligible to them. As such, we should expect Spinoza’s metaphysical views to be wholly intelligible to human beings, as he understands them. This interpretation of Spinoza’s philosophy best captures the systematicity of his philosophy: it takes his views on the nature and limits of human thought and language to serve as limits on the intelligibility of his metaphysics. My current work focuses on the applications of this global reading of Spinoza’s work to longstanding interpretative issues surrounding his conception of substance and attribute. Once we realize that Spinoza’s views on the nature of substance and attribute are intelligible to humans, we can see that they are consistent and more plausible than other interpretations suggest.
Does Spinoza’s God have Uncognizable Attributes? A Textual Analysis
According to most of his interpreters, Spinoza understood God to have infinitely many uncognizable attributes–attributes that human beings cannot think–in addition to the cognizable attributes Thought and Extension. Those with this view readily acknowledge that it causes a number of problems for Spinoza’s system. For example, the existence of these “other attributes” seems to be inconsistent with Spinoza’s “parallelism.”
Why should we ascribe such a strange and likely inconsistent view to Spinoza? The typical answer is that Spinoza’s text mandates this view. In other words, any plausible interpretation of Spinoza’s corpus requires one to understand Spinoza’s metaphysics in these terms.
In this essay, I argue that there is no such textual mandate. Spinoza’s text is consistent with a reading on which God has only two attributes, the ones that humans can cognize. To establish that this alternative reading makes sense of the text, I give an exhaustive textual analysis of all of the places in Spinoza’s work that seem to require the “other attribute” reading. I argue that no text requires us to ascribe more than two attributes to Spinoza’s God. For example, the paper argues that the “two-attribute” view is consistent with Spinoza’s claim that God has “infinite attributes” and accounts for his occasional mention of “other attributes.”
If my textual analysis is correct, then we no longer have textual pressure to ascribe esoteric metaphysical views to Spinoza. This is more in line with Spinoza’s naturalism and commitment to the intelligibility of reality.
Spinoza on the Identity of Substance with Distinct Attributes
Spinoza famously believes that there is only one substance: God. Everything that is not God is just a mode of God: a way that God is. Spinoza claims that has multiple attributes, which are what intellect perceive as the essence of God. Humans perceive God to be essentially a Thinking and Extended thing. So, God has a multiplicity of attributes.
Spinoza also seems to believe that God is identical to God’s attributes. And Spinoza holds that these attributes can be conceived to be “really distinct”: they can be understood in total isolation of one another. This introduces an interpretative puzzle: how can God be identical two really distinct attributes? On the standard interpretation, the conceived real distinction between the attributes must correspond to a real distinction of some kind because it is God that conceives the attributes to be really distinct. So, it appears that the standard interpretation makes Spinoza’s commitment to the identity of substance with distinct attributes incoherent.
To make matters worse, Spinoza also claims that God is undivided, or simple. How can God be undivided and yet have a “divided” essence, one divided into at least two attributes?
I argue in this paper that there is no good way, on the standard, Objective interpretation, for Spinoza to solve these puzzles. The most plausible form of the Objective Interpretation, which I call the Aspect Interpretation, attempts to solve these puzzles by introducing the idea that the attributes are “aspects” of God. This interpretation has no direct textual evidence to back it up and seems to ascribe a mysterious metaphysical notion to Spinoza that is crafted solely to solve interpretative difficulties.
Instead, I argue, we should adopt my Human Perspective Interpretation. On my view, the distinction between the attributes is ultimately a conceptual distinction: a distinction in the way that we humans come to knowledge about God. We say that God has distinct “attributes” because we can come to an adequate idea of God by following two non-overlapping “cognitive routes.” Once we see that talk of “distinct attributes” does not signify something intrinsic to God but instead dependent on the human intellect’s conception of God, we can appreciate Spinoza’s elegant solutions to these puzzles.
Could Spinoza Understand his own Theory of God’s Attributes?
The foundation of Spinoza’s metaphysics is his theory of God’s attributes. This theory answers the question: What is God? Because Spinoza believes that God is the only substance, the theory of the attributes is really a theory about the fundamental nature of reality.
In this paper, I ask a question that has been ignored up to this point in the literature on Spinoza’s metaphysics: did Spinoza understand his own theory of the attributes? That is, is Spinoza’s theory itself something that he could understand, given his theory of human cognition?
I argue at length that nearly every interpretation of Spinoza on offer must answer these questions with a “No.” Nearly every interpretation of the theory of the attributes takes Spinoza to be committed to the existence of things that are uncognizable by human beings. Examples include a “real essence,” “other attributes,” and “attribute-neutral entities.” We cannot cognize particular entities that fall under these descriptions because we must conceive everything under Thought or Extension. Because we cannot cognize these entities, we cannot make sense of the claim that “they” exist.
Here, one might argue that Spinoza believes we can commit ourselves to the existence of these entities as a collection or in general. However, Spinoza clearly holds that thought is not general in this way: for Spinoza all thought consists in ideas of particular objects. There is simply no way for us to think the idea that, for example, “attributes other than Thought and Extension” exist.
If this is right, then Spinoza’s system is ultimately self-defeating. I argue my interpretation, which commits Spinoza to the cognizability of everything, is the only interpretation that allows Spinoza and his readers to make sense of his system by its own lights.