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.


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