Continuing my discussion of Spinoza, questions of individuation are at the heart of his metaphysics. Where one stands with respect to these questions of individuation will determine whether or not one follows Spinoza. The aim of my discussions here is the clarification of my own views pertaining to these issues through the use of Spinoza as a foil to bring into relief my positions.
Perhaps the key proposition of Part 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics, the proposition from which all else follows, the most important link, is 1p5. There Spinoza asserts that:
There cannot exist in the universe two or more substances having the same nature or attribute
This seemingly innocent proposition will be the lynchpin of Spinoza’s most important ensuing claims, for on the basis of this proposition Spinoza will demonstrate that in the universe there is one and exactly one substance, that this substance is necessarily infinite, that all other things are therefore modes or affections of this one substance, and so on. If one concedes Spinoza’s arguments for the first five propositions of Part 1, then the rest follows as a matter of course.
If one is committed to an ontology that affirms that objects are substances– that is, independent and autonomous individual entities –it is therefore worthwhile to carefully examine Spinoza’s proof for 1p5. In demonstrating 1p5 Spinoza writes,
If several distinct substances be granted, they must be distinguished one from the other, either by the difference of their attributes, or by the difference of their modifications (Prop. iv.). If only by the difference of their attributes, it will be granted that there cannot be more than one with an identical attribute. If by the difference of their modifications–as substance is naturally prior to its modifications (Prop. i.),–it follows that setting the modifications aside, and considering substance in itself, that is truly (Def. iii. and axiom vi.), there cannot be conceived one substance different from another,–that is (by Prop. iv.), there cannot be granted several substances, but one substance only.
Here Spinoza explores two alternatives for individuating substances. Substances are either individuated by their attributes or their modes. When Spinoza refers to attributes, he is referring to what “…the intellect perceives as constituting the essence of substance” (1d4). “Substance” thus refers to the fact that something is or the existence of a thing, whereas “attribute” answers the question of what a substance is (I purposefully use the indefinite article here as, at this point in the Ethics, we do not yet know that only one individual exists in the universe). According to Spinoza, humans are only familiar with two attributes: extension or space, and thought.
Spinoza’s first argument thus unfolds by pointing out that if substances are individuated through their attributes alone, two substances sharing the same attribute must thus be the same individual because there is no other determination which distinguishes them. Consequently, if attributes are the sole criteria by which substances are individuated, it follows that two substances sharing the same attribute are necessarily the same substance. So goes Spinoza’s first argument.
In many respects, Spinoza’s second argument is more interesting. In day to day life we tend to individuate individuals through differences in affections. From here we conclude that if two individuals possess different affections they are distinct substances (where, prior to Spinoza, the term “substance” functioned as a synonym for individual, independent, and autonomous entities). When Spinoza refers to modes or affections he is roughly referring to the properties or qualities of an object. This, were we to claim that my friend Melanie and I are distinct entities, we might arrive at this conclusion based on differences in our affections or qualities. I’m taller then her, she’s female, I’m male, her hair is longer, mine shorter, I have a beard, she doesn’t, I like black beans, she doesn’t, etc. Our status as distinct substances is arrived at through differences in the affections or modes belonging to our being (note, if we do accept this as a criteria of individuation we have to account for how the affections of a substance can change while the substance remains the same substance… My hair is turning gray, yet I’m still Levi).
If Spinoza is to successfully make the case that there is one and only one substance, it is necessary that he foreclose the possibility of substances being individuated by their modes. In order to demonstrate that substances cannot be individuated by their modes or affections, he appeals to propositions he has already demonstrated. Thus, Spinoza appeals to 1p1 where he believes he has established that “substance, by nature, is prior to its affections.” If, Spinoza argues, substance is by nature prior to its affections, then it follows that we must disregard any reference to affections when thinking substance. For if, as 1d3 claims, substance is that which is in and through itself, and modes are that which are in and through another (i.e., substance insofar as qualities or affections only exist, as Aristotle observed so long ago, in a substance), it follows that we must set affections aside when thinking the “substanceness” of a substance. Were we to individuate substance through affections, the argument runs, then we would be thinking substance in and through another rather than in and through itself.
Consequently, insofar as affections cannot, according to Spinoza, individuate a substance, we are back to the first argument where, when thinking the “substanceness” of a substance, we can only appeal to attributes or what a particular substance is. And, if this is the case, two substances share the same attribute, and this is the sole means by which two substances are distinguished from one another, it follows that the supposed two substances must necessarily be the same substance if they share the same attribute. It is this line of reasoning that will establish that substance cannot be produced by another substance and therefore that it must be self-caused or exist necessarily, and that substance must necessarily be infinite. If substance cannot be produced by another substance, then this is because in order for one thing to produce another thing, the two things must share something in common. Yet if two substances share something in common (i.e., the same attribute), then they must be the same substance (in the sense of numerical identity). Likewise, if substance must necessarily be infinite, then this is because substance could only be finite (1d2) if it were limited by another substance of the same nature or attribute. But if it is limited by a substance of the same nature or attribute, then it is necessarily the same substance (again in the sense of numerical identity). Yet if that’s the case, then the substance cannot be limited and is, therefore, infinite.
Spinoza’s argument is convincing within the syntax of his own definitions and axioms; however, this plausibility only lasts so long as we quickly gloss over the question of just what it would mean to disregard the affections of a substance so as to think the substance itself. Suppose I strip my friend Melanie of all her affections or qualities. In striving to think Melanie as a substance, I ignore all of her physical properties, her quirks of thought, her personal history, her mannerisms, her love of okra, etc., so as to think this hypothetical “Melanie-substance” in and through herself. What am I left with at the end of this exercise? Absolutely nothing!. In other words, a substance subtracted from all of its affections turns out to be nothing but a formless void. One might claim that we’re left with a sort of formless blob, but even this wouldn’t be the case for a blob still has a shape or determinations. A substance subtracted from all its affections is a substance lacking in any and all determinations and is therefore nothing at all. One will object that this is not the case. Substances, the argument will run, are determined in and through their attributes, which therefore contain determinations. However, again, we run into the same problem: Is an attribute such as extension thinkable independent of all spatial determinations (modes)? Again, the thought of space without any spatial things turns out to be the thought of nothing or the absence of all determination. The conclusion then would be that the idea of an affectionless substance– such as Spinoza evokes in 1p5 –is an incoherent idea that functions as a sleight of hand, rather than a genuine concept.