Category Archives: Modsquad posts

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.

Puzzling about Spinoza on expression (part 1)

Writing about Leibniz on expression got me thinking about other early modern talk about expression, and in particular about Spinoza, who talks several times in his Ethics about things expressing others. Some of this expressing involves language, but other cases seem not to. Thus both attributes and modes are said to express things. For example, 1p6 talks of the infinite attributes of God, “each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence”. Modes, meanwhile, are also said to express God’s essence (though in a certain way, related to a certain attribute). Thus, Spinoza says in 2d1 that “By ‘body’ I understand a mode that expresses in a definite and determinate way God’s essence in so far as he is considered as an extended thing”, and in 2p1d that “Individual thoughts, or this and that thought, are modes expressing the nature of God in a definite and determinate way”. There is also related language in which attributes are said to be expressed in modes (see 3p6d, and perhaps 1p25c).

My initial question is relatively simple: what does Spinoza mean when he talks of attributes and modes expressing in these ways? I consider this by presenting at two different possible models of expression, and asking whether the expression of attributes and modes fits either model.

Two models of expression

  1. A causal model of expression. One Leibnizian idea about expression is that “every effect expresses its cause” (Discourse on Metaphysics 28). This helps, I think, understand some otherwise puzzling things Leibniz says about substances expressing God. Might it also help us in understanding what Spinoza says about attributes and modes expressing the essence of God?

  2. A linguistic model of expression. At various points in the Ethics, definitions are said to express (1p8s2, 1p16p), words are said to express (Explication of 2d3), and people are said to express using words (2p47s; see also 2p40). In these cases, expression seems to be a descriptive or representational relation. These are not all the same case, but they are plausibly related, and use a sense of ‘expression’ we might at least recognize. Could something like this sort of expression be a good model for the metaphysical cases?

Does the causal model help?

Suppose we start with the causal model, and with the expression done by modes. If Spinoza held the causal view of expression, the reason why he would say, e.g., that some particular body expressed “God’s essence in so far as he is considered as an extended thing” would be that God’s essence was the cause of that particular body. Now that might appear to be wrong, because the causal interactions of bodies are with other bodies. However, Spinoza does say that God causes modes: e.g., 1p18 says God is the immanent cause of all things. So we might think of Spinoza as saying that modes express their immanent cause, which is God, because God is their cause. So far, this is consistent with the causal model.

What about attributes though? Can we think of Spinoza’s attributes as expressing God’s essence, which is their cause? (One might imagine a causal hierarchy from essence to attribute to mode, with the things lower down on the hierarchy expressing those higher up.)

Someone might deny that Spinoza could have though this, by arguing that there is not enough of a distinction between the essence and the attributes for one to be the cause of the other – e.g., by identifying the essence with the collection of the attributes. Suppose for now though that there is enough of a distinction between essence and attributes, such that they could stand in a causal relation. Is there any evidence at all that Spinoza thought they did?

I suppose one might try and run an argument from God being the immanent cause of all things. If attributes are things, then they are caused by God. But it seems too easy to deny that attributes are things in the relevant sense. 1p18 comes soon after the claim that “nothing exists except substance and modes” (1p15d). In general, it is hard to see how to sustain the view that the essence of substance is the cause of its attributes. At least, that seems an obvious sticking point for using the causal model.

Next time, something on using the linguistic model.


Whatever happened to the theory of supposition?

Reading Arash Abizadeh’s recent “The Absence of Reference in Hobbes’s Philosophy of Language” reminds me of something that puzzles me about early modern philosophy of language. Whatever happened to the theory of supposition?

If you look at medieval scholastic theories of language, you find repeated mention of signification and supposition, two semantic features of terms. When you look at famous early modern discussions of language, you find discussions of signification, but seem to find no mention at all of supposition.

Thus Hobbes talks at length in the Elements of Law, Leviathan, and De Corpore about signification, but not at all about supposition. Locke, to give just one other example, develops a theory of signification, not of supposition, in Book III of his Essay concerning Human Understanding. (He does occasionally use the words ‘supposition’ and ‘supposing’, but meaning something else by those terms.)

Abizadeh argues that the absence of a theory of supposition is telling about Hobbes’s views:

he conspicuously abandoned the theory of “supposition,” which was the intellectual apparatus used in theories of language prevalent before him to express what corresponds to our contemporary notion of reference, i.e., the notion of an analytically irreducible semantic relation between words and things (objects) (Abidazeh 2015, p2).

That is, Abidazeh takes Hobbes’s abandonment of supposition to be evidence of his abandonment of reference. I wonder, however, how much the rejection (or ignoring) of supposition shows about Hobbes in particular. After all, that rejection seems to have been pretty widespread. Clearly the theory of supposition went away. But when did it go away?

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Leibniz, internal action, and experience

Leibniz sometimes describes thought as an internal action (see this earlier Modsquad discussion). Moreover, in a couple of places he says that we can know this by experience. Indeed, he suggests we can know enough in this area by experience to establish some substantive philosophical truths about the mind.

Thus, in “On Nature Itself” (1698):

Indeed, if this view [occasionalism] were extended so far as to eliminate even the immanent actions of substances … then it would be as distant as it could possibly be from reason. For who would call into doubt that the mind thinks and wills, that we elicit in ourselves many thoughts and volitions, and that there is a spontaneity that belongs to us? If this were called into doubt, then not only would human liberty be denied and the cause of evil things be thrust into God, but it would also fly in the face of the testimony of our innermost experience and consciousness, testimony by which we ourselves sense that the things my opponents have transferred to God, without even a pretense of reason, are ours (ONI 10).

And later in a 1704 letter to Masham:

In this [pre-established harmony] I am doing no more than attributing to souls and bodies always and everywhere what we experience in them whenever the experience is distinct, that is to say, mechanical laws to bodies, and internal actions to souls (WFNS 206).

As well as using different terminology, these arguments have different purposes. The first is directed against a particular version of occasionalism, which denies all causal power to the human mind. To oppose this, Leibniz appeals to experience that he takes to show that we do have such power: “we elicit in ourselves many thoughts and volitions”. The comment to Masham suggests, however, the possibility of something stronger: of an argument from experience for the pre-established harmony.

That argument, if it is such would begin from a premise about our experience: when our experience is distinct, we see our souls working by internal action (rather than mechanical laws or external action). How it would proceed from there is less clear. Leibniz appeals to distinct experience. Perhaps too he is relying on a principle of uniformity according to which our minds always work in the way we see they sometimes – those distinctly experienced times? – work. This appeal to uniformity fits well with the general themes of Leibniz’s letter.

It would be intriguing if Leibniz really was suggesting an argument from experience for the pre-established harmony here. And such a thing would not be entirely unprecedented for him. Recall the way he appeals to the evidence of “Swammerdam, Malpighi, and Leeuwenhoek, the best observers of our time” in the “New System”. But perhaps this is straining the text of the letter to Masham too much, and all Leibniz aims to do is indicate that his system, in which souls only ever cause changes in themselves, is not opposed to all experience. We know at least, he might just be saying, that our souls sometimes cause changes in themselves. So however strange my view might seem, it does not go against all experience. This more modest reading would also tie back in to the comment in “On Nature Itself” – for the occasionalist there has gone against the very thing that experience tells us and Leibniz’s system upholds.

A lack of supporting texts making the bolder argument inclines me to the more modest reading – watch me talk myself out of the more exciting bit of the post even while I’m still writing it – but the bolder reading is not completely ungrounded. Any thoughts out there?

“Nor is there any such thing as … simply good”

In a previous post, I pointed to Hobbes’s theorizing about moral language at the end of chapter 4 of Leviathan. I argued that Hobbes thinks moral terms have a double signification: they signify something in the world, and also something about the nature of the speaker — something about them that contributed to their applying that word to this thing.

The notion that some moral or political terms have a double signification is also visible in the earlier Elements of Law. Thus ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ “signify the same thing, together with the divers passion of those that use them; for when the men that be in that office please, they are called an aristocracy, otherwise an oligarchy” (EL 20.3). Both ‘aristocracy’ and ‘oligarchy’ have two significations. Each signifies some group of men. Each also signifies the attitude of the speaker towards that group, be it positive or negative.

Understanding Hobbes’s view about the double signification of moral terms can also help us to understand his discussions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. One of those occurs earlier in the Elements of Law:

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“For one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth feare”

Discussions of Hobbes’s views about language seem to proceed on two separate paths. (Neither of these paths is terribly busy, I’ll grant you, but they both seem to be there.) On the one hand there are discussions of Hobbes’s general philosophy of language — signification, nominalism, and the like. On the other hand there are discussions of what Hobbes says about language in his moral and political philosophy — on what he says about ‘good’ and ‘evil’, for example. But it seems to me that these two discussions should be more closely tied together.

One interesting text for starting to think about the link between the two is the final paragraph of chapter 4 of Leviathan. There Hobbes discusses moral language, including the names of virtues and vices. This discussion contributes to the moral and political projects of the book, while also being part of a general account of the workings of language. It uses the terminology of that general account, in particular its notion of signification.

The names of virtue and vices, and others like them, are, Hobbes says, of “inconstant signification”. Moreover, they are words,

which besides the signification of what we imagine of their nature, have a signification also of the nature, disposition, and interest of the speaker; such as are the names of Vertues, and Vices; For one man calleth Wisdome, what another calleth feare; and one cruelty, what another justice; one prodigality, what another magnanimity; and one gravity, what another stupidity, &c. And therefore such names can never be true grounds of any ratiocination. No more can Metaphors, and Tropes of speech: but these are less dangerous, because they profess their inconstancy; which the other do not.

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Parts of Hobbesian ideas

A couple of recent papers (one by Marcus Adams, the other by Arash Abizadeh) have me thinking about Hobbes’s views about ideas, about ideas as images, and about what the parts of ideas are.

Sometimes Hobbesian ideas have what we might call conceptual parts. One example is the discussion of resolution in De Corpore 6.4. The idea square is said to have parts including line and angle, and the idea gold is said to have parts including solid and heavy.

At other times, though, the parts of ideas seem more like the spatial parts of images. One example of this occurs when Hobbes talks of remembering, and the ways memories are less detailed than experiences, in Elements of Law 3.7. This he describes as involving a “missing of parts” and a lack of “distinction of parts”. So on the one hand you look at a city and see the buildings clearly distinguished, on the other you remember it as “a mass of building only”. But here the parts that are missing, or can’t be distinguished, are spatial parts of the image.

I don’t know what to make of this. But I think Hobbes is not alone, among philosophers with a more or less imagistic theory of ideas, in having these two sorts of parts in mind. So Hume usually thinks of ideas as having conceptual parts. But in Treatise 1.2, in the discussion of space, the coloured points into which our visual impressions and ideas are resolved are spatial rather than conceptual parts.

[Cross-posted from modsquad.)

A few of the Philosophical Letters

After putting together a small set of extracts from Margaret Cavendish’s Philosophical Letters for a class, I figured that others might find it interesting or useful, so I posted it online: Some of the Philosophical Letters.

That page presents five of the letters in part 1 of Cavendish’s book: letter 1 (which is introductory), letter 4 (the first letter on Hobbes, on the views about perception in ch.1 of Leviathan), letter 30 (the first letter on Descartes, on body and motion), letter 35 (on the alleged real distinction between mind and body), and letter 36 (on reason and non-human animals, discussing Descartes’s arguments in Discourse part 5). Together, they give examples of Cavendish’s criticisms of Descartes and Hobbes, while also introducing important aspects of her own views.

Some more textual details below the fold (as well as on the page itself):

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The errors of the naturalists

Following on, in a way, from Lewis’s post, here’s something from Henry More’s Philosophical Poems.

This is that awfull cell where Naturalists

Brood deep opinion, as themselves conceit;

This Errours den where in a magick mist

Men hatch their own delusion and deceit,

And grasp vain shows. Here their bold brains they beat,

And dig full deep, as deep as Hyle‘s hell,

Unbare the root of life (O searching wit!)

But root of life in Hyles shade no’te dwell.

For God’s the root of all, as I elsewhere shall tell.

This is the stupid state of drooping soul,

That loves the body and false forms admires;

Slave to base sense, fierce ‘gainst reasons controul,

That still it self with lower lust bemires;

That nought believeth and much lesse desires

Things of that unseen world and inward life,

Nor unto height of purer truth aspires:

But cowardly declines the noble strife

‘Gainst vice and ignorance; so gets it no relief.

From “PSYCHATHANASIA OR The second part of the Song of the SOUL, Treating Of the Immortality of Souls, especially MANS SOUL”.

[Cross-posted from]

Do only minds express God?

[Cross-posted from modsquad.]

As I’ve been arguing in previous posts, Leibniz in 1686 offered an argument that [A] all individual substances express God. As he put the point in the essay “Primary Truths”, “all individual created substances are different expressions of the same universe and different expressions of the same universal cause, namely God” (my italics).

However Leibniz also said, towards the end of the “Discourse on Metaphysics”, that [B] “other substances express the world rather than God, while minds express God rather than the world” (DM 36). Something very similar is in the summary of DM35, and in at least two of Leibniz’s letters to Arnauld (A 2.2.60, 2.2.257). This appears to be in contradiction with [A]. It held that all individual substances express God, whereas this appears to be the view that only some individual substances, minds, express God.

The last four sections of the “Discourse” (34-7) are focused on the distinction between minds and other substances. Even here Leibniz continues to suggest, in places, that all substances express God. Thus in DM 35 we are told that “the whole nature, end, virtue, and function of substance is merely to express God and the universe”. But DM 36 (and indeed the summary of 35) appear to deny that all substances express God.

Setting aside for the moment the question of how Leibniz can claim both [A] and [B], what is it that leads him to assert [B]?

One might try (here’s me trying) to say that [B] is not to be taken literally, saying there’s not really a difference between what minds and other substances express, though there are related differences (about, e.g., whether this expression is accompanied by knowledge). Thus [B] would just be a misleading summary of that point. But, if nothing else, Leibniz says [B] repeatedly, and not just in a section summary, so this looks rather weak. What else might one say here?

Well, one theme in the  discussion is that minds are made in God’s image, in such a way that a mind “does not merely express the world but it also knows it and it governs itself after the fashion of God”. So minds have a sort of resemblance to God that the other substance lack. And for this reason we might say that minds express God, whereas other substances do not. (Many thanks here to Julia Jorati for her thoughts about these passages, especially this aspect of them.)

Back to the question of how this all fits together. One might reconcile [A] and [B] by saying that minds express God in two ways and for two reasons (because he is their cause, and because they resemble him by having intellect and will) but other substances only express him in one way (because he is their cause). But this still doesn’t fit terribly well with the claim that substances other than minds express the world rather than God.

Thinking about it in this way, there look to me to be two views about expression of God in the “Discourse”: the view seen in the later sections, on which minds resemble and thus express God, but other substances don’t do that so well, and merely represent the world; and the one of the earlier sections, on which both sorts of substance express both God and the world. I’m inclined to take this as evidence for something like Catherine Wilson’s reading of the “Discourse” as containing multiple systems that don’t fit perfectly well together.