Spinoza's Attributes

by Constantin Brunner

Ens constans infinitis attributis—the substance consists of an infinity of attributes, infinite in number and each infinite in itself. This cannot mean: the substance consists, is composed, of infinite attributes. The attributes would then be the parts of the substance as, for instance, the streets of a city. The substance would be the city, the attributes the streets of the city and the modi the houses in the street—the modi would then equally participate in the absolute nature. For the modi are Dei attributorum affectiones. [1] This, however, is certainly not Spinoza's idea of the absolute, that it be composed of parts, of different parts, and consequently, anthropomorphically representable and determinable. On the contrary, he excludes from the substance every reality in the way of anthropomorphic representations and every determination and says expressly: the absolutely infinite substance is indivisible. Only the relative can appear to be composed of parts. With regard to the substance there is nothing to be added together. The substance is one, and this it is, not in the sense of a relative existence (as is for instance the one earth composed of many parts), in that the interacting parts compose by their qualities the nature of the relative existence, but it is absolutely one as the One Real Being, as Spirit. Only thereby that the substance is thought as Spirit, and not as a numerical 'one', is it the absolute. If it were a numerical quantity of one it would be one among many and would therefore have to be counted among the res particulares or modi or among the affections; it would then itself be relative, not absolute, not substance. The substance is, however, vere considerata, depositis affectionibus et in se considerata. Depositis affectionibus, however, also means: without attributes; for the attributes are the conceptions on the part of the affectiones or modi (per attributum intelligo id, quod intellectus de substantia percipit). By no means, therefore, are the attributes parts of the substance, for they are defined as conceptions on the part of the intellect, of the modus, which surely must be considered to be relative—its relativity consisting precisely in being the conception of that attribute which it, the modus, thinks. Conception equals relative being: the relative being's conception of itself, its conscious‑being, its consciousness. Thus man, in his relativity, is his own thinking, his own ideatum, i.e. he is his feeling, knowing, willing of the extension which he thinks. His relative conception of the substance, i.e. of his own absolute nature, is his consciousness, is his life. Meanwhile, with due regard to the order of precedence of substance, attributes and modi, let us hold fast to this: the attributes belong into relativity. The ambiguity of the expression Ens constans infinitis attributis will clear itself up later.

What, then, are these attributes, the numberless ones of which each is infinite in itself? Of the many books on Spinoza, mostly written by professorial, professional, philosophy and criticism, i.e. by dilettantism—does even a single one provide enlightenment? Where can you get an honest, palpable, assimilable idea of the attribute? Even the best provide a sorry sight; they do not know what to do with it. There hovers, then, this great and important thing between substance and modi, and they cannot decide whether it belongs to the one or the other, to the absolute or to relativity, or—as they put it—whether it should be considered from a subjectivist or an objectivist point of view. As if, provided only they were able to decide one way or the other, they could really understand even a modicum of the attributes which are supposed to be a conception of the substance on the part of an intellect which in its turn is supposed to be the modus of an attribute—as, for instance, our intellect is presumed to be a modus of the attribute cogitatio. To them it is merely a cross of disputation; to all seekers of clarity, however, a tormenting, teasing thing. Nothing seems established but the fact that Spinoza speaks of attributes—should it be impossible to discover what he means? We either must be able to clearly grasp the meaningful intent or else we don't want a mere word. We want to be able to live in this lofty dwelling and so there must be a stairway leading up and an entrance giving access. What, then, are the attributes?

They are the relative conceptions of the absolute substance. So much we know—but I shall now proceed to make clear what is to be understood thereby. The occurrence of the same statement in earlier writings, in those of the occasionalists, in Suarez and already in those of the philosophizing Arabs and Jews, does not advance our quest, [2] the less so since Spinoza's use of the word attribute is contrary to that by his precursors. All the earlier ones, all the scholastics and Descartes thrown in, are philosophers of religion also in their use of the word attribute. They, even as theology, speak of the thing, of the person God, of his predicates concerning his relationship to the world and of the attributes as defining his essential qualities. Spinoza, however, is far removed from any sort of materialism; he, with whom thought delves into its own depth, is the very antithesis of materialism and thereby also of materialist‑paterialistic religion. As little as the word God carries for him the scholastic, religio‑philosophical meaning, just so little does the word attribute. It does not mean that which is attributable, ascribable to God or to the substance; it does not mean quality, determinacy, hallmark of substance, nor an inherent part of the composite whole of the substance, a natura attributum, but that which in relative conception, respectu intellectus s. attribuentis—i.e. by the attributing modus of cogitatio or by the cogitant is attributed to the absolute spiritual Oneness, to the substance. Unfortunately an autonomous term designed for this concept is lacking so that, as is often the case in Spinoza, full comprehension develops only with a synopsis of the whole of his thought—always follow the thread to find the spool—as it is found in his mature work, his Ethics.

We human beings, as Spinoza puts it, know two attributes: cogitatio and extensio, thought and extension. Here, however, it must at once be stated that these two attributes are actually one attribute. Spinoza himself found considerable hardship in preserving extension and thought as two separate attributes. After all, it was impossible to uproot the word attribute from its native soil and to transplant it into a completely different thought context with a completely different signification. As far as the abstraction is concerned extension and thought may be held apart, but we do not—nor does Spinoza—know thought and extension as two distinct attributes. For we do not know thought and extension—one without the other. We do not know extensio except by thinking it and either we think nothing or else we think extension. As soon as we think we do not think nothing, neither do we think thought itself, cogitatio, but we think extension. We shall not here discuss whether thought is more than extension since, without thought, there could be no question of extension. At any rate, this our thinking of extension, or the fact that we are 'cogitants' of extensio, is our attribute or that which we conceive of the substance. Neither is thought without the ideated extension, nor is the latter without thought a conception of the substance. Our conception of the substance—and the attribute is supposed, after all, to be conception of substance—is that we think it, the substance, as extension. Did we not think extension we could think nothing and there would be for us no substance‑conceiving attribute—where is the intellectus of extension that might conceive of the substance? Extension and thought are by no means co-ordinate, independent attributes of which the substance consists, but rather the substance itself in our relative, attributive conception. They belong together, are within one another: cogitatio thinks extensio (mark well: this thinking is feeling, knowing, willing—in no way is thinking a causal or supposedly cognitive reaction to extensio) and it is this extensio that thinks in cogitatio and that gives us thought. Extensio gives us thought because its essence, its substance, is thought. That is why thought and extension do not act causally upon one another; because they are within one another, are one without distinctness. [3] The relationship of thought to extension consists in that thought thinks extension. Thought is nothing that was born outside of, or born after extension, but the latter's essence. Here, then, is one thing related to itself.

All our thinking is a thinking of extension or, in my own words in which alone I can make my meaning clear, all our thinking is a thinking of things; and to be quite precise: we think our own moved thingliness; our thinking is the inwardness of our moved thingliness, it is our thingly motion thinking itself. We think, i.e. we feel, namely what we are moved, and we will, or want to namely move, and we know, namely of the representational images of our own thingly existence and of that of the other things in the world to which our own thing—through general motion—is related. All this is our existence. Our existence reaches as far as our relationships; as much as we know of these relationships, so much we know of our existence. This, put together, makes up our relative thought‑consciousness, this unity of feeling (the sensuous thinking of our being moved or being caused), of willing (the volitional thinking of our own moving or causing) and of knowing (the intellective thinking of the relationships of motion or causality) which holds together both feeling and willing. In this manner—in thinking the unity of feeling, knowing and willing—are we, organic individuals, nodi and foci of self‑thinking motion, who become intellectively aware of far‑reaching motional relationships.—Spinoza, too, by making thought think nothing but extension, leaves no room for doubt as regards the oneness of his two attributes, and his proposition ordo et connexio idearum idem est ac ordo et connexic rerum, admittedly, may generally be rendered by 'the order and interrelation of thoughts is the same (dieselbe) as the order and interrelation of things', yet this alternative translation 'the order and interrelation of thoughts is identical (dasselbe) with the order and interrelation of things' quite certainly expresses his intent. That this is his actual intent and that we are dealing with only one attribute, one conception of the substance (i.e. as if the substance were extension, whereby the conceptory thinking is naturally implied), is also evident in his Omnia animata, everything thinks. Everything thinks—that means: whatever does not think extension, as we do in accordance with our attribute, nevertheless does think, does think something other. Thought is always there; it belongs, as that which conceives, to any attribute, i.e. any conception of the substance. There always is but a single attribute and its conceptory thinking or, if we want to put it that way: one attribute as that which is conceived and the conceiving attribute of thought. The same is already contained in the intellectus of quod intellectus de substantia percipit, a phrase to which I particularly wish to recur later on, for it is the most important passage on the subject of the attribute—a passage where the thought still is comparatively full-bodied. Enough here—I consider the two attributes of thought and extension as one attribute and can do so the more unhesitatingly as I only mean to say what Spinoza undoubtedly also means to say, namely: this thinking of extension, this motion of our body (within the world of bodies) thinking itself within us, is our human, relative conception of the substance or our relative being. With this our conception we are one attribute among the infinite number of attributes and infinite in ourselves. We think the world of moved thingliness as an infinite one. This our infinite world, from our vantage-point of relativity, is our conception of the substance. Per attributum intelligo id, quod intellectus de substantia percipit, tanquam ejusdem essentian constituens. 'By attribute I understand that which an intellect perceives of the substance, as if it constituted the latter's essence.' Human understanding, the human intellect, for instance, perceives this relative world and believes it to be true, to be the essence, the real world, the real substance of the One. To human understanding it appears as if the world of things perceived by it were reality. But he who has nothing but this has only looked in from the outside, or more correctly: he has looked into only one kind of relativity, only into himself, into his relativity. What we call the reality of the world is only our relative consciousness, equivalent to self‑preservation, to our life; it is our relationship to the absolute. The reality of our world of things is, then, reality only for the awareness of our understanding, is a phenomenal event for our relative, practical consciousness—it is not, however, reality outside the latter, not truly, not absolutely. Absolute is only the One of the substance, of the Spirit. We, too, are, absolutely, this Oneness—which is also our reality and essential nature. He who takes the things of the world to be the essence will be forsaken by them in all his nothingness. All relative consciousness is the relative conception of the absolute One.

There are, then, infinitely many relative existences, and consequently infinitely many relationships to and conceptions of the absolute; infinitely many relative realities, infinitely many worlds or infinitely many attributes. Ens constans infinitis attributis does surely not mean that the substance, the absolute, consists of infinitely many attributes. Spinoza himself leaves no doubt that he does not wish it to be so understood, for to him, as quoted, the attribute is quod intellectus de substantia percipit, is only respectu intellectus—which intellectus is a modus cogitandi. Rather it is relativity that consists of infinitely many attributes, of infinitely many world views, of countless relative worlds, i.e. relationships to and conceptions of the absolute or presumed realities of which none is the true reality of the One. The one Being, the absolute, consists as relativity of infinitely many attributes or infinitely many worlds. Of the one absolute there exists not only the relative conception of the one world peculiar to us human beings; there are numberless worlds or relativities or attributes. And with the concept of attributes we possess the ultimate and the greatest that can be said of truth, in that through it we truly conquer the verity of the idea of infinity, the verity of the infinity of worlds, the bridgehead to eternity. Substance and attributes—with these we have Spinoza's actual philosophy, in which his inspired original mind is expressed. All the rest is also luminous and extraordinary, but it is only his world view, i.e. his view of our world, of our human conception of the substance; it is his incommensurable share of the pellucid clarity and beauty of the life-serving thoughts in our attribute. But only in the turn Spinoza gave those ultimate thoughts, which seem to exist independently of each other in our consciousness—only and alone in this turn which he gave the infinite substance and the two finite substances by making of the infinite substance the only substance, and of the finite substances Mind and Body attributes, and specimens of the innumerable attributes, they being nothing but conceptions of the One of substance—in this turn and that he has lived this and thought this, therein lies Spinoza's philosophical originality. Substance and attributes—the eternal and the infinite. Without grasping the infinity of relativity which the attributes express, the bethinking oneself of the absolute cannot attain to the high degree of clarity as achieved in Spinoza's thought.


1 They also are called substantiae affectiones in which case, however, not substantia sive Deus but substantia sive attributum is valid. The fact that Spinoza could call the attributes also substance is explained by the fact that before him scholasticism had defined God as substance in an infinite sense, and body and spirit as substance in a finite sense. Spinoza made of the substances in the finite sense attributes of the one infinite substance, of the unique Ens reale, and spoke, instead of body and spirit, of extension and thought. With regard to the finite substances, attributes had been understood as the basic quality upon which the accidental qualities depended, i.e. as that which actually makes of the substance a substance in the literal sense; that which substat accidentibus. The attribute or the basic quality, the sine qua non, to our thinking, of the material on the one hand and the mental on the other, was called extension and thought. Extension and thought, then, are the attributes of the one substance to Spinoza. If he called—and in some passages of the Ethics still calls—these attributes substances, or if he speaks of substance in a context admitting of interpretation exclusively in a sense of attributes, then this is a relapse into the old idiom and does not, by any means, represent an identification of attributes with substance. Attributes are called substance only with reference to the modi. [—> main text]

2 No more than, for instance with regard to the Platonic ideas when we remember the Persian Fervers, nor any more than—with reference to Spinoza's definition of God—the like‑sounding words employed from all times by mysticism. Already Amalric of Bena and David of Dinant were arraigned and, with their adherents, condemned (by the Paris Council of 1210) for various heresies, among which the phrases: omnia sunt Deus, Deus est omnia: creator et creatura idem . . . Deum esse omnium creaturarum essentiam . . . omnia unum, quia quicquid est, est Deus (Gieseler Kirchengeschichte, 3.A.II, 2, 409). Spinoza requires his own measure, in keeping with the differentia specifica of his spirit and his work. [—> main text]

3 For Spinoza, to whom all is thought, only causa immanens exists at all, no causal effect in the vulgar sense, no causa transiens and no explaining by means of such a causa transiens, inexplicable in itself. Spinoza finds himself not involved in the insoluble problems which the relative concept of causality, like all relative concepts, poses to critical thought. Since all is in the substance and no substantiality appertains to things and since the causa transiens certainly is nothing outside of things and thingly processes, the causa transiens drops out together with its requisite temporality which equally can be nothing outside of thingly processes. All this belongs to inadequate thought. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Brunner, Constantin. Science, Spirit, Superstition: A New Enquiry into Human Thought, abridged & translated by Abraham Suhl, rev. & ed. by Walter Bernard (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1968), Part II, A, IV, [introduction], pp. 442-448. (Note: Footnotes have been converted to endnotes and renumbered for ease of reference.)

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