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I've just started reading Spinoza's Ethics and I'd like to have delucidations about his first three definitions.

Definition one:

By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.

Is Spinoza here referring to a kind of entity which must necessarily exist? I cannot think of what that might be. Maybe the mind? The entire universe itself? Elementary particles?(of course the author couldn't know about elementary particles but could it be in a modern perspective?)

Definition 2:

A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature; for instance, a body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body.

What does it mean that a thought can be delimited by another thought? Can you also give more examples of a thing that is finite after its kind?

Definition 3:

By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself; in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.

I cannot even begin to understand what Spinoza means by substance. Can you provide a clear interpretation?

Thank you for your kindness.

  • 1
    He has trouble speaking of what the substance is, but in general he sees it as independent conception/perception of a given object. For example the taste of water is substance, the look, the feel, the flow of water gives you the concept of fluid substance. It looks like substance for him is something physical and fundamental. Something which creates its own concept. Everything in the real universe thus is/are substance es. – Asphir Dom Jan 12 '15 at 19:54
  • Don't aim to understand him (or anyone) completely from start, just try to enjoy the beauty of his mind. Come to him again and again. Steal his ideas and conceptions. – Asphir Dom Jan 12 '15 at 20:00
  • Here's a more modern, abbreviated translation of Spinoza. See if this helps out: earlymoderntexts.com/pdfs/spinoza1665part1.pdf. I'd post an answer, but I don't think I understand Spinoza well enough to to so. – R. Barzell Jan 12 '15 at 20:08
  • what are you not understanding? you can't understand what he means, or you can't relate it to its place in the history of philosophy? the latter, in a basic sense, is surely easy... it's SPINOZA. he destroyed it – another_name Mar 30 at 20:40
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I've read a bit on Spinoza and he still confuses me, yet since no one's answered your question, I'll attempt an answer.

In (1) Spinoza is referring to a thing that must logically exist, that is something that would be a logical contradiction if it doesn't exist. For the record, I don't think any such thing exists.

An example of (2) is compassion. If I meet a compassionate person, and I can imagine a more compassionate person, then the first person's compassion is finite after it's kind. I don't know how a thought delimits another thought, as thought seems to be representational and as such, one would think the concepts conveyed by the thoughts would be covered by finitude.

In (3) he's talking about something that is independent and uncaused. The only thing that fulfills this requirement (IMO) is reality as a whole, as everything else is determined by how it interacts.

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    'reality as a whole' would be God for Spinoza. And that's also the thing hinted at with definition 1, if I'm not mistaken. – Keelan Feb 1 '15 at 9:20
  • you have 2 the wrong way around, 1 is unhelpful, and 3 is jargon – another_name Mar 30 at 20:44
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Try with :

Spinoza's list of the basic types of existing things is exceedingly short: substances and modes.

In the case of substances, Spinoza claims that every existing substance necessarily exists. No existing substance could have failed to exist. He also claims that only one substance, namely God, actually exists and that only this one substance could have existed. Putting these claims together, Spinoza believes that every possible substance necessarily exists. Since God is the only possible substance, it is impossible for any other substance besides God to exist.

Substance (ousia) is a key term in Aristotle : substance is an individual, but also an essence ...

According to Descartes,

the main metaphysical results that describe the nature of reality assert the existence of three substances, each characterized by an essence. The first and primary substance is God, whose essence is perfection. In fact, God is the only true substance, that is, the only being that is capable of existing on its own. The other two substances, mind and matter, are created by God and can only exist through his ongoing act of preservation or conservation, called God's “concurrence”.

For Spinoza there is only one substance : God.

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In order to understand Spinoza's definitions we need to apply a type of 'expansionist thinking'. His concepts do not respond to any type of reduction. Substance, for example contains everything which the human mind can contemplate and much more. Not in some 'ding an sich' manner. Substance is an 'idea' which we can form in our minds and comprehend, in some measure, but about which we cannot form a mental image.

These transliterated definitions are taken from my Pamphlet Two and understood best when read after the transliterated axioms [TA] which support them. Even though they proceed the definitions in Spinoza's ordering. (Access these transliterated axioms on charlessaunders5.academia.edu

Listed under research, find: [Pamphlet Two] 'To Discern Divinity' a Discussion and Interpolation of Spinoza's Ethics Part 1-Concerning God, which can be dowm-loaded free. The 'Axioms' or 'Transliterated Corollaries' to Spinoza's Axioms are on page 51.

Hope this is not too cumbersome an arrangement. CS

Transliterated Definitions Definition 1- Whatever stands above or outside of the life cycle of the entire universe, [that is: anything which is both 'necessary' and 'self-caused'] will also necessarily involve a function which permits it to be comprehended solely through the cognitive function of the human mind, without any need to require substantiation from some external sign. It can only be thought of as completely independent and self-existent.

2- By limited here is meant contained in or related to another thing in nature. Just as a tree, its leaves, its fruit and the roots that secure it into the earth are all interconnected and thereby ‘limited’ one by the other. To complete this ‘growth cycle’, the tree itself is interconnected to the earth. The life of any tree hinges on this interconnectedness and its cyclic nature. The growth cycle of the tree is limited by its relationship with the earth, which grounds and interlocks with its roots and provides nutrition and water for its development.
No thought which enters into a human mind stands alone. Just as a word makes sense only when written into a sentence, and as a sentence makes sense only as a part of a paragraph and as paragraphs connected together form a complete statement or document. This is the same relationship Spinoza uses to interconnect thoughts one to another and objects one to another. The thought and the object share no commonality; they are essentially mutually exclusive. Taken singly though, one thought interconnects another thought, just as one object interconnects with another, that is, one is ‘limited’ by another.

3- Whatever substance is constituted of, it is entirely self-contained. Because of this absolutely unique arrangement, the conception substance is effectively its own adequate definition. For example, When we think of the concept universe we do not add to that any other verbal construction to form a complete idea. We can form a 'conception' of it solely on its own merit, without any embellishment. The universe simply contains everything possible in its conceptual framework. All objects at once are conceived together when we utter the word universe. Nothing stands outside of it. @Nicol regards, Charles M Saunders

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These definitions are all, according to Spinoza, "concerning God".

  1. By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.

There is only one thing the essence of which involves existence and the nature of which is best described as existent: the Universe, which Spinoza equated philosophically with the term, "God". The universe is God, because it is eternal and cannot be destroyed. Thus, God is immortal.

In definition VIII, Spinoza stated:

I understand Eternity (aeternitus) to be existence itself...

Coincidentally, the Holy Bible (KJV) corroborates the same definition.

And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?

And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.

(I believe there is enough similarity in the context between the new and old testaments, regarding the nature of God, to allow for subtle semantic differences between the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, and the subsequent translations into English.)

  1. A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature; for instance, a body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body.

There is only one Universe, therefore there is no other thing of the same nature as the universe, thus the universe ("God") is infinite. If the universe/God is an infinite being, then it is also omniscient.

In definition VI, Spinoza stated:

God (Deus) I understand to be a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.

From this I should deduce that there is only one God (a single, infinite substance), and that God is omnipotent (consists of infinite attributes, etc.). Again, if one of those attributes is Mind, then God is also necessarily omniscient.

  1. By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself; in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.

Spinoza on substance and mind:

God, or substance, consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality, necessarily exists.

Substance absolutely infinite is indivisible.

Whatsoever [exists], [exists] in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.

Wherefore it can in nowise be said, that God is passive in respect to anything other than himself, or that extended substance is unworthy of the Divine nature, even if it be supposed divisible, so long as it is granted to be infinite and eternal.

Hence it follows, that the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God; thus when we say, that the human mind perceives this or that, we make the assertion, that God has this or that idea, not in so far as he is infinite, but in so far as he is displayed through the nature of the human mind, or in so far as he constitutes the essence of the human mind; and when we say that God has this or that idea, not only in so far as he constitutes the essence of the human mind, but also in so far as he, simultaneously with the human mind, has the further idea of another thing, we assert that the human mind perceives a thing in part or inadequately.

Based on the premises given here, one might conclude:

  • The human species / human individuals are attributes / subsets of the Universe ("God").
  • Human minds are subsets of the mind of God, and were/are created or conceived by God.
  • Therefore, as the Universe is infinite and omniscient, it necessarily knows everything about us: our thoughts, activities, and even the number and quality of atoms and elements composing the cells of our bodies.
  • And, as our characteristic bodies are rather finite, we can only possess a finite amount of knowledge, according to our particular abilities.
  • Human beings are capable of consciousness or awareness of the Universe, or "God".
  • All things conceived of or created by God, are divine.
  • Human beings are also similarly capable of conception and creativity, but at a drastically limited, finite level of aptitude.
  • God is the source of all goodness, life, and intelligence.
  • To disregard God (the Universe) or to treat it dismissively or disrespectfully -- is absurd.

...remembering that we are a part of universal nature, and that we follow her order. If we have a clear and distinct understanding of this, that part of our nature which is defined by intelligence, in other words the better part of ourselves, will assuredly acquiesce in what befalls us, and in such acquiescence will endeavor to persist. For, in so far as we are intelligent beings, we cannot desire anything save that which is necessary, nor yield absolute acquiescence to anything, save to that which is true: wherefore, in so far as we have a right understanding of these things, the endeavor of the better part of ourselves is in harmony with the order of nature as a whole.

Again, since the essence of our mind consists solely in knowledge, whereof the beginning and the foundation is God, it becomes clear to us, in what manner and way our mind, as to its essence and existence, follows from the divine nature and constantly depends on God. I have thought it worth while here to call attention to this, in order to show by this example how the knowledge of particular things, which I have called intuitive or of the third kind, is potent, and more powerful than the universal knowledge, which I have styled knowledge of the second kind. For, although in Part I. I showed in general terms, that all things (and consequently, also, the human mind) depend as to their essence and existence on God, yet that demonstration, though legitimate and placed beyond the chances of doubt, does not affect our mind so much, as when the same conclusion is derived from the actual essence of some particular thing, which we say depends on God.


The Ethics, by Benedict de Spinoza (Translated from the Latin by R. H. M. Elwes)

Ethics, Proved in Geometrical Order, Divided Into Five Parts ("Spinoza's Ethics" published by J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London), by Benedict de Spinoza

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By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceivable as existent.

'Is Spinoza here referring to a kind of entity which must necessarily exist? I cannot think of what that might be. Maybe the mind? The entire universe itself? Elementary particles?(of course the author couldn't know about elementary particles but could it be in a modern perspective?'

First this leans on a theory of causality; most things are not their own causes - why did that cup of tea move? Because I picked it up and moved it. I was the cause of its movement. Hence something is the cause of something else; hence we get a chain of causes; and if this chain of causes ends - it must end in something that is its own cause.

Over a long period time, and argument; it was concieved that the only property that this thing that is self-caused has is bare existence: this is the meaning of saying its 'essence is existence'. Think of it as the Aristotelian or philosophical conception of God.

Spinozas end-theory is a form of panentheism; so in a sense it subsumes Mind and Universe in 'God'; Spinoza may have known about 'elementary particles' - as the atomist democritus had already concieved of them - Have a look at de rerum natura by Lucretious written in the first centrury AD.

A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature; for instance, a body is called finite because we always conceive another greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body.

'What does it mean that a thought can be delimited by another thought?'

Example: Newtons idea of gravity was limited by Einsteins; another: My first idea of what an electron is concieved as - as a particle was later limited by another thought that concieved it as a field. ie corrected/changed/altered.

By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself; in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.

'I cannot even begin to understand what Spinoza means by substance. Can you provide a clear interpretation?'

It simply means something that is understood solely by itself and not in relationship to another. For example if there were two causally unconnected universes - then the first universe can be seen as a substance completely unrelated to the second; or this book 'Robinson Crusoe' is concieved seperately from that of 'Winnie-the-Pooh'; of course you could say they are both related to the notion of a book...which is true, and the story and narrative becomes more complex.

Hence all of the above though should be understood as a first approximation; essentially its long argument which starts with Plato and Aristotle continues to Plotinus and then by Descartel; keep in mind his theory is an Emanationist Cosomology like the neo-platonists, which should help in locating it historically.

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I've only read part of the ethics, but the definitions seem straightforward. Think of a "conception" as a big bubble drawn on a piece of paper.

  1. The first definition says that if we have the bubble then the thing inside it exists. An example of what could be in this bubble: perhaps God (does the idea of God mean he exists?), perhaps not.

  2. The second definition says that if we have the bubble then we can always have another bubble with the same thing inside but bigger. An example of what could be in this bubble: perhaps virtue (is there always more scope for virtue?), perhaps not.

  3. The third definition says that if we can have the bubble independent of what other bubbles we have. An example of what could be in this bubble: perhaps patches of colour (can we imagine a patch of colour without e.g. it tasting of something?), perhaps not.

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Spinoza's Axioms are aligned with his definitions in such a way that clearly understanding the axioms clarifies the definitions as well. So if you do not mind; reread Spinoza's axioms in Part 1- Concerning God. Then read these transliterated versions of his axioms. From there proceed to his Definitions and then read the transliterated Definitions. Both the transliterated axioms and definitions are from 'To Discern Divinity' (charlessaunders5.academia.edu), pp51-59 [free download]

The numbers in Spinoza's axioms and definitions and mine correspond.

Axioms Transliterated Corollaries to Spinoza’s Axioms 1-Discernible to human intelligence through intuitive understanding brought about by its minds’ connection to the body and the body’s intrinsic connection to the extended world there exists, by necessity, the knowledge of a power, intelligence, and causality that coalesces the known and unknown universe into one infinite, re-creating substance. 2-Ontologically this entity can only be the essence of a self-existent substance called god. Lemma-Everything that exists in nature is chemically interrelated and is reconstituted in a self-perpetuating and eternal cycle, fueled by the dual actions of celestial mechanics and physics. 3-No matter how infinitesimally small or large it may be, nothing in nature [the known universe] is the cause of its own existence. [This includes Higgs Bosun]
4-For a human being the only perspective possible for ascertaining anything with certainty is self-centric [the human mind]. 5-There exists an innate, intrinsic, organic and reciprocal relationship between human nature and the entire extended universe. 6-The nature of god exists necessarily and constitutes the only cause of the entire known and unknown universe. 7-The human mind and the human body, commingle within a union, which forms an active representation of two of the distinct attributes of god's infinite nature; a human being. 8-A function within the human mind which has developed over an extended period of time allows any individual person to intuitively understand the cause of its own existence. 9-The finite nature of humanity represents solely through its existence, an adequate idea of the nature of infinite and eternal causality. 10-Human existence and its self contained innate thinking and bodily functions, stand alone as the only demonstration and proof required for the existence of the infinite being and existence of god. These corollaries to Spinoza’s axioms have been derived by applying the deductive reasoning methodology to the collective content of, and by amplifying the spirit consistently evidenced throughout and accumulated within, the “Ethics”.

Definitions-Ethics Part One-Concerning God 1-By that which is self-caused, I mean that of which the essence involves existence, or that of which the nature is only conceived as existent. 2- A thing is called finite after its kind, when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature; for instance a body is called finite because we always conceive a greater body. So, also, a thought is limited by another thought, but a body is not limited by thought, nor a thought by body. 3- By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception.

Transliterated Definitions 1-As observed in the above explanation, everything in the known universe has been recognized to be engaged in some type of life cycle. Whatever stands above or outside of the life cycle [that is: anything which is not contingent but rather self-caused] will also necessarily involve a function which permits it to be comprehended solely through the cognitive function of a human being, without any need to require substantiation from some external sign. It can only be thought of as completely independent and self-existent. 2- By limited here is meant contained in or related to another thing in nature. Just as a tree, its leaves, its fruit and the roots that secure it into the earth are all interconnected and thereby ‘limited’ one by the other. To complete this ‘growth cycle’, the tree itself is interconnected to the earth. The life of any tree hinges on this interconnectedness and its cyclic nature. The growth cycle of the tree is limited by its relationship with the earth, which grounds and interlocks with its roots and provides nutrition and water for its development.
No thought which enters into a human mind stands alone. Just as a word makes sense only when written into a sentence, and as a sentence makes sense only as a part of a paragraph and as paragraphs connected together form a complete statement or document. This is the same relationship Spinoza uses to interconnect thoughts one to another and objects one to another. The thought and the object share no commonality; they are essentially mutually exclusive. Taken singly though one thought interconnects another thought, just as one object interconnects with another, that is, one is ‘limited’ by another. 3- Whatever substance is constituted of it is entirely self-contained. Because of this absolutely unique arrangement, the conception substance is effectively its own adequate definition. When we think of the concept universe we do not add to that any other verbal construction to form a complete idea. The universe simply contains everything possible in its conceptual framework. All objects at once are conceived together when we utter the word universe. Nothing stands outside of it.

Hope this is useful and not too cumbersome to use. @Nicol from CS

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