I am currently studying some aspects of Spinoza's philosophy, mainly in contrast to Kant. It seems to me that Spinoza is just the kind of "dogmatic metaphysician" Kant criticises. I know that Kant tried to "proof" God's existence in his pre-critical phase, but later changed his mind (I refrain from going into details). I therefore wanted to have a look at Spinoza's "proofs". The first one says:

In the first place, a priori thus: 1. Whatever we clearly and distinctly know to belong to the nature of a thing, we can also truly affirm of that thing. Now we can know clearly and distinctly that existence belongs to the nature of God; Therefore...

It seems to me that this is far from "a priori" as Kant defines it. Furthermore, it rather seems to be a tautology. Because to say that we know that God exists because we clearly and distinctly know what his nature is means the same thing as to already know that he does exist.

Are there any other ways to read this? Am I mistaken? I am not looking for affirmation but on the contrary for arguments against my maybe premature opinion.

  • ... though it would be appreciated if you'd let me know that you agree, too, because otherwise I won't know if it's agreement or indifference that keeps you from answering... (:
    – iphigenie
    Oct 30, 2012 at 21:23
  • "he only says we know that existence belongs to the nature of God" i.e. we have ontological knowledge of the nature of good. What's your question then?
    – iphigenie
    Jan 19, 2013 at 14:54

3 Answers 3


The style of Spinoza Ethics, demonstrated in geometrical order is a tribute to Euclids Elements as the subtitle itself points out.

The Elements is written in using Definitions, Axioms, Propositions & Corollaries.

Definitions explain the meaning of a term, as in the first definition of Ethics which defines the term causa sui, or cause of itself (in the modernised edition by Jonathan Bennet):

In calling something ‘cause of itself’ I mean that its essence involves existence, i.e. that its nature can’t be conceived except as existing.

compare to this to the first definition of Elements which defines a point:

A point is that which has no part

Now, one might say a point is natural & intuitive; it is something that is visible, or 'clear and distinct' to the eye. It takes a moments thought to see that 'it has no parts'. But, actually this covers up a long debate going by Zeno and the atomists which defined an 'atom as having no part'. An atom is metaphysical: it has no basis in reality. Similarly, a point is metaphysical in the same sense. But we say that it is 'clear and distinct' because of the force of the argument, and the clear connection with in the one hand with matter, and the other with geometry. By Euclids time, one supposes the definition of a point was accepted by geometers.

Similarly, by Spinozas time, the definition of 'cause of itself' was accepted by philosophers & theologians; it already summarises a long & distinguished tradition. (I suspect he is referring to Averroes rejection of Avicenna who places essence as prior to existence, he instead follows Aristotle in claiming that for primary substances essence & existence are equivalent. That this trajectory had further momentum is shown by Sartres slogan for Existentialism- existence precedes essence).

A definition, when widely accepted becomes a tautology. It becomes trite, since both sides of the definition becomes terms accepted in themselves; so when they are put together like this it seems nothing new has been said or added. Looking at the definition of a point today, one easily forgets the early & turbulent discussions of the atomists when this definition was forged. For example Plato supported infinite divisibility in the Timaeus against the atomists.

Spinoza uses Descartes terminology 'clear and distinct'. In Descartes Fourth Meditation, he states everything we can percieve 'clearly and distinctly' is true. This comes from his theory of perception. I, for example, right now 'clearly and distinctly' see a mug of coffee next to me, and I cannot deny that. It is true. Descarte is arguing if an idea has a similar conidition of being seen as 'clearly and distinctly' then it is has the same quality of being true.

Spinoza does nothing so 'silly' as proving God. He clearly understands this is something that is of the order of being unquestionable and/or unprovable. His treatise after all is called Ethics, and he is grounding a conception of ethics in a particular style of reasoning on his ontology, as he clearly states in the subtitle: demonstrated in geometrical order.

In the first eight definitions he defines the following terms:

  1. cause of itself
  2. finite in its own kind
  3. substance
  4. attribute
  5. mode
  6. God
  7. free
  8. eternity

He follows this with seven axioms, including this one - which is of interest when comparing his system to Kant:

A true idea must agree with its object

It is the inversion of this axiom that Kant starts his Critique of Reason, calling it his 'Copernican Revolution' in recognition of its revolutionary epistemology. That is an object must conform to the idea.

In any axiomatic system, one can easily 'destroy' the system by denying the rigor of a definition, or some part of it; or by denying the truth of an axiom. After all, the whole of Euclids Elements is technically invalidated if one denies there is such a thing as a dimensionless point (and I should point out there modern theories of geometries that do just that - some geometries having no points whatsoever). But this move is a strange one if one wants to understand the importance of the Elements.

Further, axiomatisation is sometimes thought as the beginning of exact knowledge, which in a sense it is; but also it consolidates in an efficient & consistent manner accepted knowledge.

So, Spinoza isn't proving Gods existence as he in fact takes it as a given, he is merely placing his understanding of the nature of God, his ontology & ethics on an efficient basis on concepts generated in the Greek tradition - substance, essence, God ; and a definition is not the same as a tautology, though they appear to have similarities (one does not normally, at least in mathematics, think of definitions and axioms as tautologies, but when we consider two propositions that can be shown to be equivalent on the basis of those definitions and axioms)

Finally, which is something incidental to your question, but I can't resist mentioning, is that a great deal of Spinozas understanding of God is much closer to mainstream Islamic rather than Jewish Or Christian Theology. Since he was from the Portugeuse Jewish diaspora after the collapse of the Islamic Amoravid kingdoms in Iberia, it seems only natural to suspect some influence in that direction.

  • I don't think this answered my question. My question was: Is what he calls proof anything more than a tautology, and is his use of a priori equivalent to Kant's. Explaining to me why it is indecent to ask that... Well. Not an answer, is it? Also, I was asking about the character or the argument, not about Spinoza's ontology itself.
    – iphigenie
    Jan 19, 2013 at 18:55
  • @Iphegenie: You're right - it's more in the nature of an extended comment, which wasn't going to fit in a comment box. The 'indecent' was an attempt at light humour, which wasn't meant to be taken seriously - I'm sorry if it was. I agree his use of 'a priori' is different to Kants. I don't think that its quite a tautology. I can't see how he can say we can know the nature of God without contradicting himself, as he states further on that finite minds are not capable of grasping the infinite. But he makes the claim that we can know that existence belongs to the nature of God Jan 19, 2013 at 19:55
  • and then he attempts to justify that claim later. This isn't quite the same as the first claim. Jan 19, 2013 at 19:56
  • @MoziburUllah - Well, your impression would be right - Spinoza was, after all, a pantheist! I will add that calling Spinoza an occasionalist isn't that far off the mark, because frankly he was. However, if I were to criticize Spinoza, I'd begin with a critique of his rationalist method, because given that, he does a rather deep job of metaphysics. Leibniz and Descartes may have been prolific in a number of fields, but Spinoza exceeded both in his metaphysical rigor and depth.
    – danielm
    Jan 19, 2013 at 20:13
  • @iphigenie: does this answer your question, in part at least? Dec 7, 2013 at 8:27

The SEP has an article on these sorts of proofs. I think it's fair to say that even people who endorse some sort of ontological argument don't find Spinoza convincing, for the reason you say.

However, since you wanted criticism I will point out that any proof like this is a "tautology", so I don't really think that's a valid objection. The question is whether its premises seem more reasonable than its conclusion, and they don't appear to.

You might find Godel's formulation more convincing. He basically replaces the idea of "nature" with that of "essential properties," and brings in modal logic. (Note that he never published any of these proofs, so there are various forms of "Godel's argument" floating around, some more reasonable than others.)


Maybe this quote from A. J. Ayer in "Language, Truth and Logic" is helpful:

To say that a proposition is true a priori is to say that it is a tautology. And tautologies, though they may serve to guide us in our emprical search for knowledge, do not in themselves contain any information about any matter of fact.

  • 2
    I disagree, but mainly because "a priori" will always be Kantian vocabulary in my eyes, and this is absolutely against his definitions. A priori propositions aren't tautological in general, analytical ones are. That's actually pretty much where I was going with my question. If the proof is a priori, which he seems to be, and the proof is tautological/analytical, then Kant would dismiss it as not widening our knowledge.
    – iphigenie
    Oct 31, 2012 at 14:33
  • I think one should add that they are related ideas in different domains: a priori is epistemological, whereas analytic is grammatical. Jan 19, 2013 at 14:34

You must log in to answer this question.

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