25 Dec 2008

Spinoza, Letter 4 to Oldenburg

by Corry Shores
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[The following summarizes the first part of the letter. After which, I include the text of the letter in full.]

Spinoza, Letter IV:

Oldenburg first asked how merely from God's definition we may deduce his existence, because it seems strange that anything's existence can follow from its definition. Spinoza firstly clarifies to Oldenburg that the only thing whose existence follows from its definition is God or substance, that is, a thing conceived through itself and in itself. So it is not that anything's existence can follow from its definition, rather, it is only one thing, God. And because God is defined as infinite, he has infinite power of existence, and therefore his existence follows from his definition. (67b)

Spinoza then explains that Extension cannot be limited by Thought. If someone says that Extension can be limited by Thought, then they are saying that Extension is not absolutely infinite. (67d)

Oldenburg's concern was that Thought can be considered as a corporeal activity. Spinoza replies that it cannot be disputed that Extension is not Thought. (68a)

In order to explain what grounds his axioms, he discusses his distinction between substance and accident.

Substance is "that which is conceived through itself and in itself, that is, that whose conception does not involve the conception of another thing."

Modification or accident is "that which is in something else and is conceived through that in which it is."

There are no things other than substance and accidents, because something exists either in itself or in something else (and is conceived either in itself or in something else), and substance is all that exists in itself, and modes are all that exist in something else.

And things sharing no attributes have nothing in common with each other.

Furthermore, things with nothing in common cannot have a causal relation, "since in the effect there would be nothing in common with the cause, all it would have, it would have from nothing" (68c).

Spinoza then addresses Oldenburg's claim that God has nothing formally in common with created things. In fact, Spinoza makes the opposite assessment: for him, "God is a Being consisting of infinite attributes, each of which is infinite, or supremely perfect, in its kind." So because any given thing is a mode under some attribute, it then shares in the qualitative nature of God. (68d) So for example, a body under the attribute of extension shares in God's essential nature as an extended substance.

Spinoza lastly addresses Oldenburg's concern that God has nothing in common with created things, but yet still creates them. Spinoza notes that "men are not created, but only begotten, and that their bodies already existed, but in a different form." (69a) Deleuze's account for this can be found in chapter 13 of his Expressionism in Philosophy, where he explains that simple bodies are pure differential relations, and they are continually rearranging, with each new formation embodying a new essence. So our own bodies were once bodies in other formations that have come together to constitute us now, and these bodies' relations will break down at our death and come to constitute another body. If for example we were eaten by a shark, our internal parts would come to make up the shark's body.

So when Spinoza ends with the curious statement

if one part of matter were to be annihilated, the whole of Extension would also vanish at the same time,

we can turn to Deleuze's theory of simple bodies for an explanation: the simple bodies are differential relations, all of which are in a complex network of such relations. To remove any one of them would be to change the nature of all of them, hence to remove any one would destroy the whole.

[For more on simple bodies as differential relations, see Deleuze's Cours Vincennes 10/03/1981, 17/02/1981, 20-01-1981, and Expressionism in Philosophy Ch.13]

The letter's text:



[Spinoza answers some of Oldenburg's questions and doubts, but has not time to reply to all, as he is just setting out for Amsterdam.]

Illustrious Sir,—As I was starting for Amsterdam, where I intend staying for a week or two, I received your most welcome letter, and noted the objections you raise to the three propositions I sent you. Not having time to reply fully, I will confine myself to these three.

To the first I answer, that not from every definition does the existence of the thing defined follow, but only (as I showed in a note appended to the three propositions) from the definition or idea of an attribute, that is (as I explained fully in the definition given of God) of a thing conceived through and in itself. The reason for this distinction was pointed out, if I mistake not, in the above-mentioned note sufficiently clearly at any rate for a philosopher, who is assumed to be aware of the difference between a fiction and a clear and distinct idea, and also of the truth of the axiom that every definition or clear and distinct idea is true. When this has been duly noted, I do not see what more is required for the solution of your first question.

I therefore proceed to the solution of the second, wherein you seem to admit that, if thought does not belong to the nature of extension, then extension will not be limited by

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thought; your doubt only involves the example given. But observe, I beg, if we say that extension is not limited by extension but by thought, is not this the same as saying that extension is not infinite absolutely, but only as far as extension is concerned, in other words, infinite after its kind? But you say: perhaps thought is a corporeal action be it so, though I by no means grant it: you, at any rate, will not deny that extension, in so far as it is extension, is not thought, and this is all that is required for explaining my definition and proving the third proposition.

Thirdly. You proceed to object, that my axioms ought not to be ranked as universal notions. I will not dispute this point with you; but you further hesitate as to their truth, seeming to desire to show that their contrary is more probable. Consider, I beg, the definition which I gave of substance and attribute, for on that they all depend.. When I say that I mean by substance that which is conceived through and in itself; and that I mean by modification or accident that, which is in something else, and is conceived through that wherein it is, evidently it follows that substance is by nature prior to its accidents. For without the former the latter can neither be nor be conceived. Secondly, it follows that, besides substances and accidents, nothing exists really or externally to the intellect. For everything is conceived either through itself or through something else, and the conception of it either involves or does not involve the conception of something else. Thirdly, it follows that things which possess different attributes have nothing in common. For by attribute I have explained that I mean something, of which the conception does not involve the conception of anything else. Fourthly and lastly, it follows that, if two things have nothing in common, one cannot be the cause of the other. For, as there would be nothing in common between the effect and the cause, the whole effect would spring from nothing. As for your contention that God has nothing actually in common with created things, I have maintained the exact opposite in my definition. I said that God is a Being consisting of infinite attributes, whereof each one is infinite or supremely perfect after its kind. With regard to what you say concerning my first proposition, I beg you, my

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friend, to bear in mind, that men are not created but born, and that their bodies already exist before birth, though under different forms. You draw the conclusion, wherein I fully concur, that, if one particle of matter be annihilated, the whole of extension would forthwith vanish. My second proposition does not make many gods but only one, to wit, a Being consisting of infinite attributes, &c.

Spinoza. The Letters. Transl Samuel Shirley. Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1995.

Text reproduction from R. H. M. Elwes translation, available online at:

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