Spinoza on Inherence, Causation, and Conception 1



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Spinoza on Inherence, Causation, and Conception1

Yitzhak Y. Melamed (Johns Hopkins University)

(Forthcoming in Journal of the History of Philosophy)

Spinoza’s philosophy is bold and rich in challenges to our “common-sense intuitions”, and insofar as it provides powerful arguments to motivate these challenges, I believe that we cannot ask for more. Bold and well-argued philosophy has the indispensable virtue of being able to unsettle and try us, to move us to reconsider what seems natural and obvious, and possibly even to change our most basic beliefs. Indeed, for those who seek to test – rather than confirm - their old and well-fortified intuitions, Spinoza is nothing short of a living spring.

My deep support for rigorous, counter-intuitive philosophy notwithstanding, a considerable part of the current paper will be dedicated to an examination and critique of one of the boldest and most fascinating readings of Spinoza of the past few years. In his recent piece, “Rationalism Run Amok: Representation and the Reality of Emotions in Spinoza,” and in his outstanding new book, Michael Della Rocca suggests a strict identification of the relations of inherence, causation, and conception in Spinoza (Della Rocca develops this view partly in response to a position recently articulated by Don Garret). In order to see the striking implications of this claim, one need only realize that, according to Della Rocca, Spinoza holds that insofar as the sun is the (partial) cause of some states of the sunflower, the sunflower (partly) inheres in the sun. Furthermore, insofar as my great-great-grandparents caused me, I inhere in them (though we never co-existed at the same time). The mere oddity of Della Rocca’s claim will play only a limited role, if any, in my discussion below. Della Rocca provides important and interesting arguments to the effect that if we are to accept Spinoza’s radical version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (henceforth, PSR),2 we should bite the bullet and accept the odd implications of Spinoza’s alleged view. While I have nothing but admiration for this willingness to read Spinoza in an allegedly consistent and uncompromising manner, I do think that Della Rocca’s argument that a strict endorsement of the PSR leads necessarily to the identification of the relations of inherence, causation and conception is wrong. I will argue that (1) Spinoza never endorsed this identity, and (2) that Della Rocca’s suggestion could not be considered as a legitimate reconstruction or friendly amendment to Spinoza’s system because it creates several severe and irresolvable problems in the system, and for that reason (and not because the threefold identity contravenes common sense) it should be rejected. In the rest of the paper I rely on my analysis of the relations of inherence, causation, and conception, and suggest a new interpretation of core issues in Spinoza’s metaphysics, and particularly of the conceived through and in another relations and the nature of the substance/modes opposition. Against Della Rocca’s claim that the bifurcation of efficient causation (into causation which is, and is not, accompanied by inherence) constitutes an illegitimate brute fact, I will argue that the bifurcation of causation in Spinoza is paralleled by a bifurcation of conception and that the two relations are grounded in the foundational bifurcation of existence into substance and modes. If we are to recognize the reality of modes in Spinoza, we must also acknowledge the bifurcations that result from the bifurcation of existence into substance and modes.

In the first part of the paper, I present the considerations and arguments that motivated Don Garrett’s and Della Rocca’s interpretations. In the second part, I present and examine several problems that result from Della Rocca’s reading. In the third and final part, I (1) present my own view on the relation among inherence, causation, and conception; (2) offer a new interpretation of the conceived through relation in Spinoza; and finally, (3) defend and justify the presence of (non-arbitrary) bifurcations at the very center of Spinoza’s system.

1. Inherence, Causality, and Rationalism

E1a4, one of the most important yet enigmatic axioms of the Ethics, reads:

E1a4: Cognition3 of an effect depends on, and involves, the cognition of its cause [Effectus cognitio a cognitione causae dependet, et eandem involvit.].

While the precise meaning of this claim may be disputed,4 a consideration of Spinoza’s use of this axiom makes it clear that at least part of what it means is that

(1) If x causes y, then y is conceived through x.

In E1p6, Spinoza argues that “One substance cannot be produced by another substance.” The second of Spinoza’s two proofs of this proposition reads:

If a substance could be produced by something else, the cognition of it would have to depend on the cognition of its cause (by A4). And so (by D3) it would not be a substance (E1p6d2).



The first sentence of this passage relies on E1a4 to conclude from “x is the cause of y (or x produces y5)” that “the cognition of y involves the cognition of x.” In the second sentence Spinoza argues that had the cognition of a substance involved the cognition of something else as its cause, this would violate the definition of substance (E1d3) as what is “conceived through itself, i.e., that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing.” Thus, in E1p6d2, Spinoza clearly reads E1a4 as stating that effects are conceived through their causes, i.e., (1).6 Following Don Garrett, I will call this doctrine the “Causality Implying Conception Doctrine.”7

In his 1996 book, Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza, Della Rocca followed Jarrett, Bennett, and Wilson in pointing out that Spinoza’s use of E1a4 in E1p25d shows that he understands E1a4 to claim also the opposite direction implication,8 i.e., that

(2) If y is conceived through x, then y is caused by x.

E1p25d reads:

E1p25: God is the efficient cause, not only of the existence of things, but also of their essence.

Dem.: If you deny this, then God is not the cause of the essence of things; and so (by A4) the essence of things can be conceived without God. But (by P15) this is absurd. Therefore God is also the cause of the essence of things, q.e.d.

The demonstration takes E1a4 to state, “if x is not the cause of y, y can be conceived without x.” The contrapositive of the last claim is that “if y must be conceived through x, x is the cause of y,” which is roughly (2). Following Garrett, we will call this doctrine the “Conception Implies Causality Doctrine.” The conjunction of (1) and (2) gives us the biconditional:

(3) x causes y, iff y is conceived through x.

In 2003, Garrett published an important article offering a new interpretation of the doctrine of the conatus in Spinoza. According to Garrett, the phrase “quantum in se est” in E3p6 (“Unaquaeque res, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur”) should be read literally, as implying that finite things can be in themselves to a certain degree (while God is unrestrictedly “in se”). In a note in this article Garrett claims:

It is clear that, in this context, Spinoza also accepts the converse claim that “if y is conceived through x, then y is in x.” This applies, however, only in cases where y is completely conceived through x. For although a finite mode may be partly conceived through the other finite modes that are partial causes of it, it does not follow that it is in those finite modes. Rather, it is in the substance through which it – as well as the finite modes that help to cause it – may be completely conceived.9

Garrett also adds:

One might reasonably ask whether, if an accident is not entirely in the singular thing of which it is predicated, it must then be partly in the other singular things that contribute to its causation. Spinoza’s view seems to be that whatever is completely caused by x must be completely in x, but that we need not accept as a general principle that whatever is only partly caused by x is partly in x. That is, what Spinoza calls “immanent causation” implies inherence, but what he called “transient causation” does not.10

Della Rocca is highly supportive of Garrett’s view that finite things can be in themselves to a certain degree. He also expresses sympathy for Garrett’s decision to propose a rather unstable position (i.e., by suggesting that finite things can be partly in themselves, but not partly in another) in order to avoid some bizarre implications, yet he thinks that Spinoza should bite the bullet and embrace the bizarre implications.

So on Garrett’s view, although conception and causation may be only partial, and although a thing can be only partly in itself, being in another is all or nothing. This seems to be a reasonable move because it avoids having to bite the apparent bullet of saying that the table is in any way in or inheres in the carpenter. But Spinoza is not one to avoid biting bullets or, more accurately, what one might see as bullets the biting of which is to be avoided, Spinoza often sees as logical or rational conclusions to be embraced because of their rationality, because of their logical unavoidability. And, indeed, I think that there are good reasons to see Spinoza as embracing this conclusion.11

Hence, Della Rocca suggests that we should unrestrictedly accept the Inherence12-Causation Biconditional:

(4) x is in y, iff x is caused by y.

In order to support (4), Della Rocca provides both textual evidence and a highly interesting argument relying on (Spinoza’s version of) the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Della Rocca reads Spinoza’s definition of mode – “E1d5: By mode I understand the affections of a substance, or that which is in another through which it is also conceived [Per modum intelligo substantiae affectiones, sive id, quod in alio est, per quod etiam concipitur]” – as stating the biconditional

(5) x is in y, iff x is conceived through y.

We will call (5) the “Inherence-Conception Biconditional.” Obviously, from (3) and (5) one can deduce (4) by transitivity.

Della Rocca brings some further textual support for (4) by pointing to an interesting parenthetical passage from the Theological Political Treatise that seems to imply that an effect is a property of its cause:

The more we know natural things, the greater and more perfect is the knowledge of God we acquire, or (since knowledge of an effect through its cause is nothing but knowing some property of the cause) the more we know natural things, the more perfectly do we know God’s essence, which is the cause of all things.13

According to Della Rocca, the claim that knowledge of an effect through its cause is knowledge of a property of the cause can be read as implying that to be a property and to be an effect of x are one and the same thing.14 Della Rocca also cites another passage from the Short Treatise which suggests that the internality/externality of effects is a matter of degree (and hence that an effect can be partly in its cause and partly in an entity external to the cause):

All the effects which we produce outside ourselves are the more perfect the more they are capable of being united with us to make one and the same nature, for in this way they are nearest to internal effects.15

Yet, Della Rocca’s main motivation for accepting the Inherence-Causation Biconditional comes from the Principle of Sufficient Reason. It is commonly agreed that, for Spinoza, inherence implies causality; the point of contention is whether causality implies inherence. If causality does not imply inherence, it would seem that within causation there is a sharp division between causation which is accompanied by inherence and causation which is not. This bifurcation, like any other fact, demands an explanation, but according to Della Rocca, there is no explanation for this bifurcation: it is just a brute fact.

[A]s far as I can see, there is no good answer to the question in virtue of what does what might be called inherence-dependence differ from other forms of causal dependence. And, thus, this difference would seem to be a brute fact, in violation of the PSR. Given Spinoza’s deep aversion to brute facts, it behooves us to see Spinoza as not drawing this ultimately arbitrary distinction.16

Similarly, Della Rocca argues, insofar as (3) is true, the relations of causality and conception always go together. Now there is only one kind of conception, and it appears to be just a brute fact that conception (being always the same) is sometimes accompanied, sometimes not, by inherence.

But now on the conceptual level, what kind of dependence relations are there? It seems that there is just one: the table is conceived through God and the table is conceived through the carpenter. In the former case, the conceptual dependence is complete; in the latter case, the conceptual dependence is not complete. But in both cases, on the conceptual level, the kind of dependence seems to be the same. There is no radical shift in kinds of dependence relations on the conceptual level as there is on the ontological level between dependence relations that are relations of inherence and those that are not. Thus, on the view I am opposing, the homogeneity of the conceptual dependence relations is not matched – not, if you will, paralleled – by any homogeneity of the ontological dependence relations.17

For Spinoza, brute facts are anathema, and if the only way to avoid the acceptance of brute facts is by endorsing the Inherence-Causation Biconditional (4), Spinoza, Della Rocca says, must bite this bullet.

Let me state from the outset that I do not believe Spinoza himself actually accepted the Inherence-Causation Biconditional. The notions of inherence, causation, and conception are far too central to his system for him to have neglected stating their equivalence (or identity) had he believed in it. Spinoza makes abundant use of the notion of partial (or inadequate) cause, but as far as I can see, in none of these places does he indicate that a partial effect inheres (partly) in its (partial) cause.18 19 I consider this simple point to be conclusive as to Spinoza’s actual views, though it still leaves open the possibility of a friendly amendment to, or even improvement of, his system. But let me add two more brief points about Spinoza’s actual views. When we look carefully at Spinoza’s use of Ed5, we find that he relies on this definition quite frequently but never uses it to derive inherence from conception.20 Finally, the first axiom of the Ethics could be read as excluding the possibility of one thing’s being partly in itself, partly in another.

E1a1: Whatever is, is either in itself or in another [Omnia, quae sunt, vel in se, vel in alio sunt].

If Spinoza’s use of ‘vel’ indicates mutually exclusive disjunctions, then E1a1 seems to reject the possibility of one thing being both in itself and in another.21

Be that as it may, even if Spinoza himself never accepted the Inherence-Causality Biconditional, it appears to me perfectly legitimate to suggest an improvement of Spinoza’s system. Obviously, such an improvement should remain loyal to the principles and main contours of the system. In the following part of this paper, I consider the viability of the Inherence-Causality Biconditional as a Spinozistic doctrine and its consistency with the rest of Spinoza’s system, without regard to the question of whether Spinoza did or did not explicitly accept the doctrine.

2. Bifurcations and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

I see several problems with the Inherence-Causality Biconditional, and I will present them in escalating order (i.e., from least problematic issues to most).

(i) In E1p18, Spinoza presents a distinction between immanent and transitive (or transient) causation.

E1p18: God is the immanent, not the transitive, cause of all things.

Dem.: Everything that is, is in God, and must be conceived through God (by E1p15), and so (by E1p16c1) God is the cause of [NS: all] things, which are in him. That is the first [thing to be proven]. And then outside God there can be no substance (by E1p14), i.e. (by E1d3), thing which is in itself outside God. That was the second. God, therefore, is the immanent, not the transitive cause of all things q.e.d.

From the demonstration of E1p18, we can learn that an immanent cause is an efficient cause (hence the appeal to E1p16c1) whose effect is in the cause (hence the invocation of E1p15).22 A transitive cause is an efficient cause whose effect is not in the cause. Now, according to Della Rocca, every effect is in its cause, and this seems to make the transitive cause into an empty category that is strictly impossible.23 While this objection puts some pressure on the threefold identity thesis, it may not be fatal. A proponent of the Inherence-Causation-Conception identity thesis could respond by suggesting that any case in which the effect is not fully in the cause should count as transitive causation (while immanent causation will be defined as the case in which the effect is fully in the cause).24 In such a case, the carpenter would only be a transitive cause of the table, since the table is only partly in the carpenter. We may press this objection a bit further. According to the threefold identity thesis, the table should be fully in its complete cause. Thus the table is perhaps not fully in the carpenter, but it should be fully in the singular thing constituted by the carpenter together with all the other entities which contributed to the production of the table (see E2d7). Hence, it would seem that the category of transitive causation still remains empty, since each thing would be fully in the singular thing which caused it. Della Rocca could respond to this by saying that a transitive cause is only an incomplete account of a case of immanent causation. In other words, we consider the carpenter the transitive cause of the table (since the table is only partly caused by the carpenter), but the carpenter together with all the other entities that collaborated in the causation of the table are (all together) the immanent cause of the table. I do not think this response works, since it seems to me that Della Rocca should say that that part, or aspect, of the table that is completely caused by the carpenter is also completely in the carpenter;25 and if this is the case, then, again, the category of transitive causation turns out to be empty.

(ii) In E3d3, Spinoza defines an affect [Affectus] as the “affections of the Body by which the Body's power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections.” Now, consider the following scenario. Josephine whispers “bu” to Napoleon. Napoleon laughs. Insofar as Napoleon’s laugh is caused by Josephine, the laugh also inheres in Josephine, i.e., is an affection of Josephine’s body, as well as of Napoleon’s body. Laughter or joy increases our power of acting, but the question is: Whose power of acting is increased? Since both Josephine and Napoleon contributed to the causation of the laugh, we should, according to Della Rocca, ascribe the joy to both bodies. The tragic reality, however, is that in many a case Josephine-like people say bu-like things to Napoleons, making the Napoleons laugh (i.e., increasing their power of acting), while the Josephine-like people remain at the same level of power of acting, or perhaps even get saddened.26 In other words, causing an increase in the power of acting of someone else does not necessarily increase your own power of acting, but if we accept the identity of inherence and causation, it would seem that the increase of the power of acting must also belong to (i.e., be in) the cause of the increase as well. A world with such regularities would be quite interesting and, perhaps, just, but it is not ours, and we have no reason (or textual support) to believe that Spinoza thought that our world obeys such wonderful regularities.

(iii) Durational Inherence – The next few arguments deal with the implications of Della Rocca’s thesis for Spinoza’s understanding of temporality. A radical reading of Spinoza, suggested primarily by the German and British Idealists, takes Spinoza to be a modern reviver of the ancient Eleatic philosophy. According to this reading, Spinoza denies the reality of finite things, time, and duration, and affirms the sole reality of the eternal substance in which all determinations are null and void.27 As I will later argue, I suspect that Della Rocca’s bold use of the PSR in order to obliterate any bifurcations in Spinoza’s metaphysics leads him toward this stance, but so far Della Rocca does not seem to subscribe to this view.28 Assuming that Della Rocca does not ascribe to Spinoza the view that duration (“duratio”) is illusory,29 it seems that insofar as future things are caused by past things, future things must also inhere in the past (i.e., in past things).30 But that is a very bizarre conception of inherence. Traditionally, inherence is understood as a simultaneous relation between a substratum and its states or qualities (or at least as a relation that is not spread in time, in the case of a substratum and states which are not in time at all). Of course, one may still bite the bullet by embracing this odd notion of inherence -- as I readily admit, Spinoza is always full of surprises -- but upon closer examination, it seems that Della Rocca’s understanding of inherence amounts to nothing over and above efficient causation. In 1969, Edwin Curley published a work that in many ways changed Anglo-American discourse on Spinoza.31 Curley argued that in Spinoza’s work, the Substance-Mode relation cannot be understood according to its traditional sense but rather that, for Spinoza, to be a mode of God is just to be caused by God. Over the years, Curley’s interpretation was criticized by several scholars,32 and in his recent work Della Rocca himself provides two powerful arguments against Curley’s position, claiming that “for Spinoza, all modes… are modes in something like the Cartesian sense: they are features or states of God.”33 Della Rocca explicitly aligns himself with the traditional understanding of inherence: “The notion of in-ness as manifested in the substance-mode relations, I believe, a version of the traditional notion of inherence: modes are in substance in the sense that they inhere in that substance.” 34 Yet, I am not aware of any text of Descartes or his predecessors in which inherence is taken as a relation that is spread in time.



As far as I can see, Della Rocca’s view does not much differ from Curley’s. An inherence relation in which the substratum and qualities have different temporal locations seems to have very little in common with the traditional understanding of inherence (and much more in common with the traditional characteristics of efficient causation). 35 I have elsewhere provided several arguments against Curley’s interpretation of the substance-mode relation,36 and if Della Rocca’s is just the same view in different garb, I believe that many (though not all) of the same arguments are applicable to his reading as well.
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