Sunday, 1 August 2010

Thoughts on Spinoza, substance and language, 1

I had an inspiration last night before falling asleep. A thought occurred to me which connected two ideas that I hadn't quite been able to synthesize. Clearly the brain or mind works when I'm barely thinking consciously at all.

The thought is this (and it might not mean anything to you if you aren't familiar with the metaphysics of Baruch Spinoza):

Substance is language.

I come to this (a) after several years of attempting to figure out in concrete terms what Spinoza meant by "substance", which he also calls "God", and (b) fewer years of coming to terms with the belief that language is the foundation of reality. Laying it out like this, I think I should have come to my conclusion much sooner!

Whether you are or are not familiar with Spinoza's idea of substance, I'd be happy to have your input.

Let me see if I can make this clear with Spinoza's own words. His book, The Ethics, contains his metaphysics:


  1. By that which is self-caused I mean that whose existence involves existence; or that whose nature can be conceived only as existing.
  2. A thing is said to be finite in its own kind when it can be limited by another thing of the same nature. ... a thought is limited by another thought. But body is not limited by thought, nor thought by body.
  3. By substance I mean that which is in itself and is conceived through itself; that is, the conception of which does not require the conception of another thing from which it has to be formed.
  4. By attribute I mean that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence.
  5. By mode I mean the affections of substance; that is, that which is in something else and is conceived through something else.
  6. By God I mean an absolutely infinite being; that is, substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence.
(This is very much how Spinoza wrote the book, by the way, and it attracted me from the first time I opened it.)

Can we replace each instance of "substance" with "language" in the above and the rest of The Ethics? I worry that doing so will result in no small amount of discrepancies, but I shouldn't be surprised that a late renaissance book might need updating.

Already, there are many questions:
  • Can the nature of language "be conceived only as existing"?
  • Can we conceive of another language greater than language in general?
  • Do we conceive language through itself or does it require something prior?
  • Does language have infinite attributes?
And each of them is an essay unto itself.

I'll continue this in another part. That's plenty to digest at once.

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