In Spinoza’s ethics he provides eight definitions as well as seven axioms at the very beginning of his work. These definitions and axioms are set up in a way in which Spinoza can formulate arguments for the proof of the propositions he later presents. One of the definitions I found surprising was the fourth one, which states “By attribute I mean that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence. ” (pg. 1 Spinoza),which is found in the beginning of Spinoza’s ethics. Based off his definition it can be found that it is not completely clear as to what Spinoza’s exactly defining because it could be taken in either one of two ways. The first being whether attributes are really the ways substances are or the second interpretation that attributes are simply ways to understand substances in a general sense, but not necessarily the way in which they really are.
For Spinoza he believes that there are an infinite number of attributes, but there are two attributes for which he thinks we can have knowledge of; Thought and extension. The definition provided should be changed to clarify his meaning as this nominal definition is later used in definition six as well as in Proposition ten which is subsequently needed for one of the key proposition’s in question(fourteen). I think the most surprising part of the definition is the way in which he uses the word intellect.
For the intellect is one of the limited attributes we have access to, yet the intellect perceives substance, which is in itself and is conceived through itself. Spinoza could change the definition to show the correspondence between ideas and reality in a more clear fashion;however, he does not do so specifically for the reason that the definition ought to be put this way in order to prove later propositions.
I question why intellect is the special thing that which percieves of substance, when intellect is simply part of one attribute that we comprehend; thought. The definition should be changed to show that by attributes he understands them to be things in which we understand substances. For Spinoza substance is the conception of which does not require the conception of another thing from which it has to be formed. So the substance Spinoza is speaking of is God, and he words it in a way such that it necessarily exists.
He does this by establishing that no two substances can share an attribute or essence then by showing that since no two substances can share an attribute there must be one eternal and infinite God. Spinoza would not be able to prove Proposition 14 which suggests that everything in the universe is simply God unless the definition in question were put the way it is. Proposition 14(better explain) is built upon proposition 10(define) which of course is built on the definition of attributes.
Spinoza would not be able to prove Proposition 10 unless definition 4 was put the way it is for he suggests that a substance can be labeled separate only by differences in their attributes of affections; that is one God composing of an infinite number of attributes meaning them all, and thus solidifying the concept of one substance. The way in which he uses the definition is necessary for his description of a God that is a universal, transient and self sustaining cause of all that exists. As mentioned earlier we have access to two attributes, extension and thought.
So one quality of substance is extension, hence one of its essences is extension. So one of the ways in which our “intellect’ perceives the essential constitution of substance is by it being infinitely extensive. Spinoza’s version of the definition is not necessarily needed to prove proposition 14 but is necessary for the proof of proposition 10 which subsequently sets up proposition 14. So what the de? nition of ‘attribute’ does is to allow us to treat the attributes in a basic way that Cartesian ‘essences or natures’ are said to be, while including ‘what intellect perceives… and the limitation on what intellect can do rather than a fact about how things stand in the rest of reality, thus making this a safe procedure for Spinoza. Spinoza explains ‘attribute’ in this way because he has no other way of doing so. Spinoza’s version of definition 4 is needed to prove Proposition 10 because it lies in his proof of 10 which states, an attribute is that which intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence by definition 4, and so by definition 3 it must be conceived through itself.
Spinoza might defend his version of the definition by pointing out that nothing in nature is clearer than that each entity must be conceived under its attribute or some attribute. Spinoza would continue to argue that the more reality or being it had, the more its attributes would express necessity, eternity, and infinity. Thus, making his version of the definition necessary for the later propositions.
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