Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 1: EIIIP4

Over the next week or two my blogging is going to focus on Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Part III, Propositions 4 to 13 – a baffling text by a baffling philosopher. This section contains the foundations of Spinoza’s account of the human mind and its functioning, as part of a general panpsychist theory of causation. But nobody’s really sure of what it means or how it works.

So I’m going to go through it Proposition-by-Proposition, trying to interpret them in such a way as to be both interesting and plausible. I’d love for anyone with an interest in Spinoza to give feedback/comments/criticism. Text available here.

So today I’m starting with Proposition 4, which says that:

“No thing can be destroyed, except by an external cause.”

On the surface this is clearly false, but I think underneath the surface it makes much more sense. There are three points here that need to be discussed, and at each point the proposition becomes less obnoxiously strong. These points are the meaning of ‘thing’, of ‘essence’, and the role of consistency.

1) ‘Thing’

To start with ‘thing’, note that Spinoza does not say ‘nothing’, but ‘no thing’. Not everything is a thing, in the relevant sense. What is that sense?

At the beginning of Part II tells us this: “if several individual things concur in one action, so as to be all simultaneously the effect of one cause, I consider them all, to that extent, as one particular thing.”

Two things about this should be noted: ‘thing’ is a causal notion, and a relative notion – stuff can be ‘a single thing’ to some extent, when we consider it in a certain light. So here’s how I would read it:

‘When we explain some stuff that happens, its convenient to lump some aspects of reality, together under one heading, because they have, in that explanatory context, the same causal relations. Such lumpings-together, we call ‘things’.

This is suggested by Spinoza’s language, but I think it also fits his general metaphysics, which is intensely hostile to genuinely discrete individuals – i.e. to defining ‘thing’ in an absolute or ontological, rather than a relative and explanatory, way.

2) ‘Essence’

So that’s a ‘thing’ – what is ‘external’ to a thing? This comes out in the proof Spinoza offers: “the definition of anything affirms the essence of that thing, but does not negate it…So long therefore as we regard only the thing itself, without taking into account external causes, we shall not be able to find in it anything which could destroy it.”

So ‘external’ means ‘external to the thing’s essence’. But what is part of a thing’s essence?

In Part II Spinoza gives a standard, unhelpful definition: “that without which the thing, and which itself without the thing, can neither be nor be conceived”, i.e. whatever is necessary and sufficient for a thing to exist.

Fortunately, Spinoza helps us with his more developed definition of ‘thing’ a bit later in Part II: “[W]hen…bodies…are compelled by other bodies to remain in contact…so that their mutual movements should preserve among themselves a certain fixed relation, we say that such bodies are united, and that together they compose one body or individual.”

This is a specifically physical definition, but I think we can extrapolate: an ‘individual thing’ is any collection of stuff whose parts interact so as to preserve certain relations between them. This fits fairly well with the earlier definition of thing – I’m not sure if they’re entirely synonymous but I don’t think the differences are significant.

Now, if a thing’s essence is whatever’s necessary and sufficient for its existence as a single thing, and it exists as one thing because of a certain set of internal relations, then that set of internal relations is the thing’s essence.

3) Consistency

But there’s one last condition. Spinoza says ‘the definition of a thing affirms but does not negate its essence’, which implies that essences cannot be contradictory. If they were, definitions might negate them just by affirming them.

I don’t think this is a substantive claim, so much as a rule for individuating essences. To distinguish one thing from two things interacting, see if there’s a consistent account of all the relations among their parts – if you can only find accounts where some relations undermine or disrupt others, then you have two (or more) essences, two distinct things.


So we can re-phrase Proposition 4 thus:

“No explanatorily relevant grouping is dissolved by the consistent set of internal relations that maintain it.”

Spinoza says this is ‘self-evident’, and he’s right. But is it trivial, uninformative? On its own, yes. In context, perhaps not – if we take its meaning not as metaphysical, nor yet as psychological, but as methodological.

Then it would mean something like this: to explain an entity’s behaviour, identify the stable, self-maintaining set of internal relations that define it. The application of this to the human mindbody occupies the rest of the Ethics.

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12 Responses to Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 1: EIIIP4

  1. Pingback: Reading Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’, Post 2: EIIIP5-6 | Majestic Equality

  2. Hi Luke,

    How strange to come upon your blog at this point. My first question is to why you decide to begin your exploration of the Ethics in the middle other than because, as you say, it is such an opaque and difficult text.

    Secondly, not a question so much as a curiosity. How wonderful that just when (being liberated by having finally finished finals) I was planning to start reading Books 3 – 5 having up until now only closely read the first two books. I am trying to resist the temptation offered by the Scholastic doctrine that all things act for an end and to avoid wondering “how could so many circumstances have concurred by chance” (I Appendix).

    I look forward to following your investigation.


    • lukeroelofs says:

      Hi Ike,
      I guess I feel that this is the part that I felt was most persistently annoying/misunderstood – a month ago I finished a course on the Ethics, and felt dissatisfied with the way that it was interpreted. Also, I find this part one of the most interesting because of how it stands at the junction of metaphysics and psychology.
      Thanks for reading

  3. Out of (further) curiosity, were you teaching or attending the course?

  4. timlshort says:

    Hi –

    Just a quick query to begin with…

    You say:

    “No thing can be destroyed, except by an external cause”

    and quickly dismiss it as false prima facie – and go on to weaken it in interpretation to make Spinoza’s line more plausible. Fine, but it doesn’t strike me as clearly false…I was wondering if you had some counterexample in mind?

    What it seems to deny is that any thing can destroy itself. So you must have an obvious example of just that. Were you thinking of suicide, or a building collapsing, or…?

    • lukeroelofs says:

      Hi Tim,
      Counter-examples that are brought up in the literature sometimes include candles burning themselves down, timebombs blowing themselves up, and human beings committing suicide. Perhaps the most striking example is the apparent tendency towards senescence in biological organisms/cells, whatever its precise extent. These are clearly counterexamples if there are no restrictions on what we count as a ‘thing’, which is why I think it’s vital to work out what counts as a ‘thing’.

      The ‘affirm’ I think means something like this: ‘the definition of X states the conditions for X to exist, so if mustn’t include, as a condition for X’s existence, something that will entail X’s non-existence, or it would be contradictory.’

      (and it’s “determinatio”, not “definitio” :P)

  5. timlshort says:

    And…I’m very confused by the word ‘affirm’ in ‘the definition of a thing affirms but does not negate its essence’. What does he mean by that? And shouldn’t we be looking at that in light of the infamous omnes definitio est negatio tag…?

  6. timlshort says:

    “candles burning themselves down, timebombs blowing themselves up, and human beings committing suicide”

    I think probably mereological essentialism is making me relaxed about things destroying themselves because I think that happens all the time! And of course that is why you are right to point to the importance of what a ‘thing’ is.

    But looking at those examples, can Spinoza not very easily come up with how those are really examples of external causation? The candle burned down because someone lit it, the bomb was triggered, the suicidal person was…unhappy/depressed/unbalanced…

    Spinoza couldn’t have been thinking of cells of course but there is a causal story there to do with telomere length or evolution.

    Should have got that quotation right! Hope I didn’t do that in finals…

    • lukeroelofs says:

      “can Spinoza not very easily come up with how those are really examples of external causation? The candle burned down because someone lit it, the bomb was triggered, the suicidal person was…unhappy/depressed/unbalanced…”
      Yes (and I think this is roughly Michael Della Rocca’s strategy in his book ‘Spinoza’). But the problem with this is it threatens to become meaningless as ‘external causes’ swells to include anything that was in any way influenced by anything external, i.e. everything.

  7. timlshort says:

    OK. But isn’t Spinoza fine with that because ‘everything is everything else’ anyway…? I think trying to identify a thing which is stable and isolated from everything else is something we can only do in the context of loose everyday talk…because there is no strict identity over time or over space. There is a probability (albeit vanishingly small) that an electron currently in the Andromeda galaxy will turn up here and have causal effects.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      ‘In the last analysis’, I think you’re probably right, but ‘loose everyday talk’ is still a big deal – in particular, the analysis of why humans shows the behaviour they do, and what they can do to attain happiness. At this level, we’re clearly talking about something with approximate identity over time and space, even if not strict identity. And P4 seems to play a big role in Spinoza’s account of this ‘loose everyday’ realm.

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