In "The Story of Philosophy", Will Durant says the following:

Writing in Latin, [Spinoza] was compelled to express his essentially modern thought in medieval and scholastic terms; there was no other language of philosophy which would then have been understood. So he uses the term substance where we should write reality or essence; perfect where we should Write complete; ideal for our object; objectively for subjectively, and formally for objectively. These are hurdles in the race, which will deter the weakling but will stimulate the strong.

This list is obviously not complete, and likely outdated, since the translation of Ethics I am reading (R. H. M. Elwes) uses the word essence right away in definition I and again in IV. However, this quote is enough to force me to ask: What, if any, are words used in Ethics with obscure, antiquated or otherwise odd meanings?

Please note I am not asking for the explanation of the Definitions in Ethics proper, but any problematic words within them and the axioms, propositions and notes.

  • 1
    This sounds very controversial to me. First of all, the term "essence" was well known to scholastics, Aristotle coined it, and again Aristotle understood "substance" as something like the substrate of reality. This is what Spinoza means, that's neither "modern" essence nor reality. And in any case philosophers always alter colloquial meanings of key terms, or those of other philosophers, so those are always "antiquated" and have to be read in the context of their work and times. The idea of modernizing "translation" sounds like a recipe for anachronistic reading of modern thought into Spinoza.
    – Conifold
    Aug 8, 2016 at 21:29

1 Answer 1


This is more a series of comments than an answer.

First, don't get distracted too much by Durant's small list. For example: yes, "essence" appears in Id1 (cf. SEP on referring to the Ethics). In Latin, he writes:

Per causam sui intelligo id cujus essentia involvit existentiam sive id cujus natura non potest concipi nisi existens.

By self-caused, I understand that whose essence involves existence or that whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing (My translation)

It's hard to imagine that there's an extant English translation that renders "essentia" as anything other than "essence."

Id4 is similar:

Per attributum intelligo id quod intellectus de substantia percipit tanquam ejusdem essentiam constituens.

By attribute I understand that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence.

When Durant says "he uses the term substance where we should write reality or essence", he isn't claiming that the words "essence" or "reality" don't exist for Spinoza—both essentia and realitas are technical terms in Scholastic Latin—what he means is that where Spinoza has written 'substance' (substantia) he uses it in a way that is closer to how we use "reality" or "essence" rather than how we use "substance". Thus, for example, when he writes (in Ip14) that "besides God no substance can be granted or conceived" (Elwes translation), it's fairly obvious that "substance" here means something other than what we normally take it too. Similarly, when Spinoza defines "substance" in 1d3:

"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." (Elwes translation)

This sounds very little like how we tend to speak of "substance". Among other things, why does "conception" enter into this definition of "substance"? Of course, whether it in any obvious sense sounds like "reality" or even "essence" can only be seen by following how Spinoza uses "substance" within the Ethics. And here we come to what is actually Durant's point, which he states pretty clearly in the paragraph after the one you quoted:

Spinoza is not to be read, he is to be studied;... in these brief two hundred pages a man has written down his lifetime's thought with stoic sculptury of everything superfluous.... You will not understand any important section thoroughly till you have read and pondered the whole (p. 186–187)

The point isn't that Spinoza's language is outmoded or that his Scholastic terminology distorts what he's trying to say. Its that Spinoza's writing-style in the Ethics makes virtually ever term he uses imbued with odd meanings and it would sound just as odd had he written it in Dutch or even English.

  • Thanks so much for the clarification! This comes a relief, as I'm about half way through the first section at the moment and thought I was understanding it pretty well but was worried I might be misinterpreting terms (the most scary one on that list was objective/subjective). Glad to know it's not the issue I was perceiving it to be. Aug 9, 2016 at 19:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .