Spinoza’s puzzling attributes

spinoza diagram

By Richard Mather

Spinoza’s theory of the attributes is perhaps the most tricky aspect of his ontology. The attributes play a crucial role in Spinoza’s Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata, otherwise known as Ethics. “By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence,” Spinoza says. Also: “An absolutely infinite being must necessarily be defined as consisting in infinite attributes.” The attributes help us to understand the world in terms of thoughts and things. Furthermore, their relation to the unity of being (which Spinoza calls “substance” or “God/Nature”) goes a long way to solving the Cartesian mind–body problem.


Spinoza argues that there is only one and unique substance in existence, a substance that is infinite, self-caused, and eternal. This substance is the spatio-temporal world. But it is also God, the self-caused Being. As Spinoza says, “God is one, that is, only one substance can be granted in the universe.” Spinoza famously said that God is Nature. Things and facts are “modes” or modifications of the single substance that is God, conceived under the attribute of extension. Likewise, thoughts, desires, beliefs, ideas etc, are modes of God, conceived under the attribute of thought.

Spinoza argued that mind and matter are not two opposite substances but are two different ways of conceiving one and the same substance. But the attributes of mind and matter do not exhaust God’s attributes. According to Spinoza, God has infinitely more attributes — it’s just that we’re not aware of them. This raises puzzling questions, such as: ‘How many attributes are there?’ To which the answer may be ‘two’ or ‘an infinity.’ If there are an infinity of attributes but we only know two of them, are the other attributes hidden? Are they even thinkable? And we must also ask whether the attributes are what the finite intellect perceives of substance as if (but not in fact) constituting its essence. There may be no definite answer to that question because of the unfortunate ambiguity of a particular Latin word, tanquam. Indeed, there is little agreement among Spinoza scholars regarding the best way to interpret the theory of attributes and some of this confusion can be attributed to Spinoza himself, whose own definitions of attributes can be perplexing.

Here are some of the focal quotes from Ethics regarding the attributes:

— By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence. (1D4)

— By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence. (1D6)

— It is thus evident that, though two attributes are, in fact, conceived as distinct — that is, one without the help of the other — yet we cannot, therefore, conclude that they constitute two entities, or two different substances. … it is abundantly clear, that an absolutely infinite being must necessarily be defined as consisting in infinite attributes, each of which expresses a certain eternal and infinite essence. (1P10Schol)

— Thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing. (2P1)

— Extension is an attribute of God, or God is an extended thing. (2P2)

Some queries (in no particular order)

Spinoza asserts in 1D6 that God is “a substance consisting of infinite attributes.” The fact that he doesn’t he say “infinite number of attributes” is interesting. Does infinity mean a numerical infinity or not? Or does it mean that each attribute is itself infinite (insofar as it expresses substance’s eternal and infinite essence)?

In support of numerical infinity is the following:

— Therefore whether we conceive Nature under the attribute of Extension, or the attribute of Thought, or any other attribute, we shall find one and the same order, or one and the same connection of causes, that is the same things follow one another [emphasis mine]. (2P7Schol)

This is known in the secondary literature as parallelism. But it raises the question as to how the hidden/unknown attributes are parallel to the known attributes of thought and extension. Do the other attributes form pairs like thought + extension? Must all attributes necessarily be parallel to the attribute of thought?

The fact that Spinoza speculates but is unable to identify and name the unknown attributes should make us pause. Are the unknown attributions merely metaphysical speculation? Are the unknown attributes merely unknown or are they hidden from thought and hence unthinkable? And if the two attributes known to us – thought and extension – signify God’s indwelling in the universe, are the hidden attributes also immanent or do they signify God’s transcendence?

It is tempting to solve the riddle of the attributes using a kind of Wittgensteinian therapy. The claim that there are an infinity of attributes could then be categorized as a pseudo-statement insofar as it is neither true nor false, but simply meaningless. Should we therefore conclude that these unknown attributes are einfach Unsinn (“simply nonsense”) in the sense meant by Wittgenstein: a statement that cannot be independently verified.

Even if we dissolve the riddle of the extra attributes, other questions remain:

Does Spinoza’s God have attributes or do the attributes inhere in God? The former option would suggest there is a real distinction between substance and attributes, but I’m not sure that is right because is threatens to undermine the unity of God.

On a similar note, is there a real distinction between the attributes of thought and extension, or is it the mind’s way of carving reality at the joints?

And finally, do the attributes really constitute the essence of substance?

In E1d4 Spinoza states that “by attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its essence.”  The Latin original is per attributum intelligo id, quod intellectus de substantia percipit, tanquam ejusdem essentiam constituens. The word tanquam can be translated both as ‘as if’ and as ‘as.’  If it is the former, then it suggests that the attributes are not really the essence of substance but only seem to be. If, however, tanquam is translated as ‘as’, we might conclude that each attribute really is the essence of substance. But if so, we then have to explain how God can have more than one essence.  

Some answers (in no particular order)

Because Spinoza never talks of more than two attributes (i.e.extension and thought), Jonathan Bennett, author of A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, argues in favor of the claim that Spinoza’s God has only two attributes. Contrary to the view that Spinoza’s infinity is numerical, Bennett says Spinoza sometimes equates infinity with totality. That is, when Spinoza says that God has all possible attributes, perhaps he means that the two attributes of thought and extension are in fact the totality of attributes. Similarly, G.W.F. Hegel says Spinoza’s claim that there are “infinite attributes” should be interpreted as “infinite in character” and not in number. This is a pleasing solution but it fails to account for the times when Spinoza explicitly mentions the existence of other (nameless) attributes.

Hegel is surely right when he says extension and thought are only the two attributes known to finite minds. But Hegel’s interpretation puts the stress on finite minds and not infinite intellect. This seems right but it does beg the question: Is the infinite intellect capable of perceiving more than two attributes? As far as I can understand it, infinite intellect is essentially the mind of God. So the answer is yes. God’s infinite intellect comprehends all of God’s attributes. (Interestingly, the human mind is a part of the infinite intellect of God (see 2P11_Corollary), but it is only the collective whole — i.e. the mind/intellect of God — that is able to comprehend  the other attributes.)

So when Spinoza says that the human mind “possesses an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God” (2P47), this might at first suggest that the attributes of thought and extension are all there is to know about God’s infinite essence, thereby putting into doubt the existence of other attributes. However, as we have seen, this does not rule out the possibility that God can comprehend the other attributes, even if we can’t.

Another way of looking at it is to conclude that multiplicity is attributed to infinite substance precisely because of the limitations of the finite mind, when in truth the infinite substance is simple and unitary, that is, one. In other words, attributes are what the finite intellect (individual minds) perceives of substance as if (but not in fact) constituting its essence. This is confusing but it connects with a particular line of interpretation by the so-called subjectivists who argue that each attribute is not really the essence of substance but merely seems to be, and that any multiplicity of attributes is merely apparent. In other words, the terms attribute of thought and attribute of extension are only different ways of expressing the same being of substance. Or to put it another way, the attributes refer to how our minds categorize and rationalize our experiences.

If we can only think of God under the attributes of extension and thought, this presumably means that every other attribute (presuming they really do exist) are not available to human thought and hence unthinkable. And so the claim that there are an infinity of attributes is neither true nor false, but simply meaningless in the sense meant by Wittgenstein: a statement that cannot be independently verified.

And so, in the end, we arrive at an impasse or aporia (to use a term favored by post-structuralists). The issue, as far as I can tell, is undecidable. So it is fortunate that Spinoza’s system manages perfectly well with or without the additional attributes. Indeed, the unknown attributes seem to me to be a kind of vestigial structure, a feature that was either never properly developed or lost its original function. My theory is that the unknown attributes are from an earlier stage in Spinoza’s thinking and were perhaps influenced by the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy found in Judaism or (and this is more likely) Descartes’ notion of God’s attributes as including infinitude, necessary existence, eternality, immutability, benevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence. Descartes, of course, was Spinoza’s foremost intellectual predecessor, and Spinoza’s philosophy can be interpreted as a radical correction of Descartes’ ideas about God, mind, matter, substance, modes and attributes. I suggest, then, that Spinoza’s ideas about God’s unknown attributes are remnants of his early encounters with Descartes’ philosophy.


A REMINDER: The one-day conference “Contemporary and Historical Perspectives on Spinoza and Culture” will be held on August 3 at Manchester Metropolitan University, Geoffrey Manton building, room 230, starting 09:30.


‘It is a place, Makom, where each man may be called up’: Being and time in Barnett Newman’s art

vir heroicus

Vir Heroicus Sublimis (painted in 1950-51)

‘Even if you don’t know Newman’s place in art history, walking into a space full of his paintings can inspire contemplation. They give you nothing and everything to look at, these huge canvases whose only subject is themselves, enveloping you in the moment, confronting you with seemingly pure fields of color and contrast.’ (Molly Glentzer, “A different stripe,” Houston Chronicle)

By Richard Mather

In an 1965 interview with art critic David Sylvester, Jewish-American artist Barnett Newman stated that his overwhelming Vir Heroicus Sublimis (painted in 1950-51) “should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself.” The notion of place rather than space plays an important role in Newman’s work. Space is relatively unimportant to him because it is common property, without identity. Place, by contrast, takes into account both time and consciousness. It is place that generates in the viewer a “feeling” of his or her own “totality,” of their own “separateness” and “individuality” as they stand before his painting:

“[T]he painting should give man a sense of place: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself. In that sense he relates to me when I made the painting because in that sense I was there … To me that sense of place has not only a sense of mystery but also has a sense of metaphysical fact. I have come to distrust the episodic, and I hope that my painting has the impact of giving someone, as it did me, the feeling of his own totality, of his own separateness, of his own individuality and the same time of his connection to others, who are also separate.”

That Newman was given to metaphysical pronouncements will not be surprising to those who are familiar with his writings on art. Newman had a philosophical background and was later exposed to some of the existential ideas of Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. Indeed, Heidegger and Sartre’s preoccupation with being (being-in-the-world, being-for-itself etc) can be seen in some of the titles of Newman’s work: Right Here; Here; and Not There-Here, among others.

Many critics have noted the significance of place and its Hebrew correlate, makom, which means “place” but is also a name of God (ha-makom) in Judaism. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 68:5) explains that God is the place of the world, and yet the world is not his place. This idea resonated with Newman, according to Harry Cooper, curator and head of modern and contemporary art at the National Gallery. “He hoped such a place would be created between his art and the viewer,” Cooper remarked. (Quote taken from “His Cross To Bear” in the Jewish magazine Forward.)

Indeed, Newman used the term makom in 1963 when describing his design for a synagogue:

“It is a place, Makom, where each man may be called up to stand before the Torah to read his portion … My purpose is to create a place, not an environment … Here in this synagogue, each man sits, private and secluded in the dugouts, waiting to be called, not to ascend a stage, but to go up to the mound [bimah]where, under the tension of that “Tzim-tzum” that created light and the world, he can experience a total sense of his own personality before the Torah and His Name.”

The space between the viewer and the artwork (or in this case the bimah) is no longer just space, but sanctified place where the physical and metaphysical meet. This meeting is what might be termed presence, a term that captures the sense of physical location (here), time (the present) and awareness of self (here I am). It seems that with the design of the synagogue, Newman intended the worshipper to have a real sensation of “being there,” that is, the consciousness of being present before the Torah. This awareness of being-there, this awareness of presence, is what Newman elsewhere calls “sublime.”

Time and the il y a

It happens that the materiality or sheer presence of Newman’s paintings exposes us to what Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls the il y a: literally, “there is,” “the horror of being,” existence without being. Levinas describes the il y a as impersonal, anonymous, as something that deprives consciousness of its subjectivity. The experience of the il y a is an experience of existence in which nothing happens.

But it would be a mistake to think Newman’s chromatic abstractions represent the il y a and nothing else. On the contrary, Newman’s mature paintings boast a particular and distinguishing feature: the Newmanesque zip.

The zip is a vertical band of color, often made with the aid of masking tape and palette knife. Newman introduced the technique in the late 1940s and it remained a constant feature of his work throughout the remainder of his life. Paintings in which the zip went down the middle of the canvas (as in Onement 1) developed into paintings where the zip was off-center, and others in which there were several vertical zips. In some paintings, the zip is up to eleven feet tall. (There are a few instances of horizontal zips, but the vast majority of his paintings feature the vertical bands.)

Newman’s zips act as a kind of intervention or temporal event that differentiates the canvas, preventing Being from falling into the anonymous and impersonal il y a. The zip is what might be described as ecstatic temporality (ecstatic from the Ancient Greek ek “out” + histanai “to place, cause to stand out”). Time not only gives sense or meaning to Being, it marks the emergence of sensation, the physical materiality of something or someone. Humans, in particular, but also some animals, are not just in time, they are conscious of time and take account of time. As Claude Cernuschi points out (in Barnett Newman and Heideggerian Philosophy), “Humans exist in the present, with the past, and in anticipation of the future.”

Time is a physical experience: To those of brought up under the influence of Greek philosophy (which is most of us), the past is behind us; the future ahead of us, while the present is where you are located at this exact moment (hence the words presence and present). The ancient Hebrews, by contrast, thought of the past as something in front of them, as something that can be seen, while the unknown future is hidden from our view, as something behind us, hidden from our eyes.

Time was a dynamic process for the ancient Hebrews. Whereas the Greeks tended to think in terms of space and stasis, the Hebrews conceived of time as activity, the unfolding of events. In fact, this dynamic sense of time is embedded in the four-letter Hebrew name of God: yhwh, which is a derivation of yhyh (future), hyh (past) and hwh (present)

I mentioned earlier Newman’s association of makom with the synagogue. Interestingly, inscribed over the Ark in the sanctuary of many synagogues throughout the world are the Hebrew words דע לפני מי אתה עומד — da lifnei mi attah omed — “know before whom you stand” — which is based on a phrase found in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28b. This, in turn, recalls God’s words to Moses at the site of the burning bush: “…the place [ha-makom] upon which you stand is holy soil.” And it is here that God reveals the temporal nature of his name: yhwh.

And so we have a close proximity of place (makom), time (yhwh) and event (burning bush). It is also here that Moses emerges as a particular someone, a someone who stands in unique relation to the Divine:

“The Lord saw that he had turned to see, and God called to him from within the thorn bush, and He said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am! [hineni]’.”

Hineni: Here I am. With the word hineni, Moses emerges from anonymity into the self-consciousness of being-there in the presence of God. It is here, at this time, in the presence of God, that generates in Moses what Newman might have described as the feeling of “totality,” of his own “separateness” and “individuality.” In fact, this brings us full circle to the beginning of this essay where I cited Newman’s assertion that his painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis “should give man a sense of place [makom]: that he knows he’s there, so he’s aware of himself.”

To experience space fully, we must have a sense of time. Newman once remarked that the sensation of presence “is the sensation of time.” “Each person must feel it for himself,” he remarked. “The concern with space bores me. I insist on my experiences of sensations in time — not the sense of time but the physical sensation of time.”

It is the awareness of time (yhwh) that turns space into place, into makom or holy ground. This, I think, is what Newman successfully captures in his huge canvases (but also in his design for a synagogue and his sculptures). And it is why Newman deserves to be seen not just as a New York modernist but as a distinctly Jewish painter who manages to represent the sheer presence of being and time without resorting to pictorial representation (“do not make graven images”). Newman’s chromatic abstractions are, in my view, the finest examples of a bold Jewish art that aims for the heights of the Hebraic sublime.


Broken Obelisk (designed between 1963 and 1967) in front of Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas 


Is Spinoza’s pantheistic ontology a template for authoritarianism?




  • The pantheist ontology of Baruch Spinoza (b.1632 – d.1677) is an attempt to deny the accountability of political evil.
  • Spinoza’s instinct for statist control and his distrust of the common man are displayed in Theological-Political Treatise (published 1670). His masterwork, Ethics (published posthumously in 1677), is a bold attempt (in the guise of ontology) to classify minds and bodies as attributes of the State.
  • In Ethics, Spinoza ‘outlaws’ any vantage point from which we can address or protest the kind of ‘perfect power’ — and its attendant evils — that constitute the essence and existence of the State.


By Richard Mather

Little work has been done on the potentially negative effects of perfection and power in Spinoza’s Ethics and how his pantheistic ontology not only devalues theodicy, but affirms a model of power that resists accountability. Spinoza scholar Yitzhak Melamed has suggested there is a logically transitive relation between God’s essence, existence and attributes, but not much is said about how this relates to perfection and power. Brandon C. Look has examined the relation between power and perfection, but he concerns himself largely with the type of (positive) perfection experienced by the individual (e.g. joy as the transition from lesser perfection to greater perfection). There is still work to be done in examining the negative political implications of Spinoza’s system.

In Ethics, Spinoza draws the opposite conclusion from his Jewish intellectual forebear, Philo of Alexandria. Philo advances a theory of the transcendence of the Existent One, creator of the Good (but not evil). Philo makes a crucial distinction between God’s existence (which can be ascertained) and his essence (which is unknowable). For Spinoza, however, the essence of God does not exist in a transcendent dimension. Rather, “God’s existence and his essence are one and the same” (E1p20). And unlike Philo, Spinoza not only assigns everything to God, he says everything is God. Spinoza says there can only be one “substance,” a substance that is both the cause of itself and whose essence involves existence. Spinoza collapses the ontological difference between God and the world, a radical assertion of pantheism that eradicates transcendence and ushers in, perhaps for the first time, a philosophy of immanence.

(I have previously argued on this blog that Spinoza was a panentheist because of his assertion that God has an infinite number of attributes. However, all but two of these attributes are unknown, and they lie beyond the limits of language. And if there is nothing to be said about these unknown attributes (other than Spinoza’s speculative assertion that they exist), then it begs the question whether we should concern ourselves with them, especially if they contribute nothing to the political implications of Spinoza’s ontology.)

By collapsing the ontological difference between God and the world, Spinoza devalues the problem of evil because his pantheism outlaws the idea of a transcendent moral God. Ergo, evil cannot be explained; we can only describe its effects. Moreover, Spinoza’s rejection of transcendent values and the collapse of the God/Nature distinction leaves us (as “modes”) without any vantage point from which to critique power. All we have is a closed system of immanent causation in which God/Nature is the source of power, the expression of power (via the attributes), and the effects of power (modes). Not only is this power necessarily perfect, it is a permanent and ongoing state of affairs for the simple reason that substance is infinite. Spinoza’s refutation of teleology offers us nothing but an endless expression of this state of affairs. Human beings are likewise constrained in that they are simply modifications of substance.

One would mind less if Spinoza’s all-pervasive substance was good rather than icily perfect. But as Spinoza himself admits, God’s perfection is not the same as saying God is good. Far from it. Besides, what we judge to be good or bad is not true in any absolute sense, according to Spinoza: Good is merely whatever agrees with our nature.

And there is certainly no sense that Spinoza’s pantheistic God suffers, unlike Schopenhauer’s Will or William C. Lane’s pandeistic God who commits an act of self-emptying for the sake of love and suffers as part of the creation he has become. On the contrary, how things are in the world is a matter of complete indifference to Spinoza’s pantheistic God, because God is how things are in the world. Indeed, for Spinoza, it is not so much why (bad) things happen but how things happen.

True, Spinoza holds out the hope that some of us may reach a blessed state in which we are able to intuitively grasp the world as a whole “under the aspect of eternity,” but we know from Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise that this is realistically only available to an elite few. The common man and woman, by contrast, have to suffice with Spinoza’s seven dogmas of popular religion.

Tellingly, one of the reasons Spinoza elaborated his seven laws was the need for a popular religion to ensure discipline. Not only was this popular religion to be under the control of civil authorities, this state religion would be (by Spinoza’s own admission) a lie. It is important, Spinoza says, “that he who adheres to them [the doctrines of faith] knows not that they were false” [italics mine] because otherwise “he would necessarily be a rebel.”

Spinoza’s instinct for statist control can be seen in the assertion, “Whatever is, is in God and nothing can exist or be conceived without God” (E1p15). Or to put it another way: Whatever is, is in the State, and nothing can be conceived without the State. Spinoza’s substance-as-State expresses itself equally in things and in ideas (via the twin attributes of “extension” and “thought”), an astonishing concept when one realizes that ideas, thoughts and minds belong to substance/State as much as bodies do. In fact, the very concept of thought (not just individual thoughts) emanates from the State and belongs to the State.

None of which sits well in our post-Holocaust, post-Soviet world, in part because we have seen how power without accountability — a power that apparently constitutes substance’s “very essence” (E1p34) — can have barbaric consequences. This is of particular interest from a Jewish viewpoint, firstly because of Spinoza’s own troubled relationship with Judaism but also because any attempt to explain or justify evil in the wake of genocide and terrorism is morally and conceptually problematic.

Contrary to a competing claim (made by Antonio Negri) that Spinoza gives us an effective ‘other’ to power, Spinoza’s ontology is actually a closed system, a system that invites moral indifference because there is simply no place from which we, as modes, can critique power. Moreover, we are all guilty by implication because each of us is a modulation of this power, both mentally and physically. (Alain Badiou is closer to the truth of the matter when he says that “Spinoza represents the most radical attempt ever in ontology to identify structure and metastructure.”)

More work needs to be done to develop the suspicion that Spinoza’s pantheist ontology is a political ruse designed to bolster the power and reach of the State. But what kind of State? It seems to me that Spinoza is much less interested in social and economic policy than in the ontological apparatus needed to uphold civic and religious institutions with the supreme aim of ensuring discipline. Indeed, Spinoza’s system looks very much like a political and bureaucratic metastructure that manages people. 

There is no doubting that Spinoza is an impressive philosopher, perhaps one of the greatest-ever thinkers, but his icy metaphysics and his patent distrust of the common man and woman are troubling. Of course, Spinoza could not have foreseen the degree to which excessive and murderous statism would blight Europe’s political landscape during the the first half of the 20th century,  but he can (I think) be taken to task for lending credence to the type of managerial politics espoused by superbodies such as the European Union. And for that reason, it is worth reappraising Spinoza’s contribution to political thought.