Puzzling about Spinoza on expression (part 2)

My previous post asked some questions about Spinoza’s notion of expression. I’m particularly interested in – puzzled by, really – the expression done by attributes and modes.

In that post, I asked whether it helped to think of Spinoza’s talk of expression using the model provided by Leibniz’s claim that “every effect expresses its cause” (Discourse on Metaphysics 28). Though this might make some sense of the expression done by modes, it seems less helpful when we look at the expression done by attributes. So here I turn to a different model of expression, one suggested by the Ethics itself. Spinoza says that definitions express, that words express, and that people express using words. Can we understand the expression done by attributes and modes using this more or less linguistic model? As with the causal model, there are problems and puzzles, but there also seem to be some possibilities.

In this linguistic sense of expression, expression is representation or description. Now, the metaphysical relation of expression between attribute and essence, even though we don’t really know what it is, might seem to be nothing like that. An attribute is not, you might say, like a definition or a thought or a word – not like the sort of thing that expresses in this way.

However, the view that attributes are representations of the essence of God does seem to make some sense on a subjective interpretation of the attributes. If attributes just are thoughts by which we think about the essence of God, their expression of that essence could be quite like the expression involved in the linguistic cases. (Particularly if we think of expression as being description – the subjectively understood attributes would describe the essence of God as being a certain way.) Now, lots of people don’t like subjective interpretations of the attributes. But thinking this way would allow us to unify some of the diverse-seeming uses of ‘express’ in the Ethics. For attribute expression and linguistic expression would turn out to be the same thing.

(For all the problems alleged with subjective interpretations of the attributes – and I make no reply to those points here – one ought at least to acknowledge that these interpretations have a strong and basic appeal, simply because of the way Spinoza himself chose to define ‘attribute’.)

What, however, to say about the expression done by modes? Can we think of this as a sort of description or representation, and thus make sense of it too on a linguistic model? After all, it would be good to have a unified account of metaphysical expression, something the causal model did not provide.

This does seem difficult, though there are perhaps things one might say. One might think of a body, a finite extended thing, as a sort of low grade, degenerate representation of God considered as a substance that possesses the attribute of extension. Likewise one might think of a mind, a finite thinking thing, as a sort of low grade, degenerate representation of God considered as as a substance that possesses the attribute of thought. This is to take particular things as being (in an attenuated sense) images of God, because of their relation to the attributes and essence of God. Being images in this way is not exactly like representing as language does. But it is at least a sort of representation.

Published by Stewart Duncan

Associate Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Florida