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However, he maintained that any given portion of extension is conceivable apart from the rest of extension and is thus a substance.

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Descartes did not think this, otherwise void space would be possible for him. Since extension is conceptually divisible to infinity, Malebranche is committed to an infinite number of extended substances. Apart from the whole of extension, moreover, every substance contains an infinite number of substances, of each of which it is a mode. It is also a part of an infinite number of substances, which are modes of it. The explanatory value of the concept of substance would seem to have been lost with such results as these.

Tad M. Schmaltz

Here the effect is to reverse the Aristotelian logic of substance. As a Platonist, he was interested less in substance as the hypokeimenon , which accounts for difference, than in its other sense of ousia , which accounts for sameness. In this sense too, then, his heterodoxy as a Cartesian is part and parcel with his deep commitment to rationalism, and in particular with his rationalistic reduction of phenomenal difference to real sameness.

For Malebranche, a cause is that between which and whose effect there is a necessary connection. Thus, for Malebranche, only God has causal efficacy. What we take to be real causes—for example the motion of a billiard ball that collides with another that then begins to move—are in fact only occasional causes, the occasions for the operation of the only real cause.

Margaret Cavendish agrees with Malebranche that bodies do not cause change in one another, but she disagrees with him about whether nature is self-moving.

Where Malebranche takes created things to possess no causal power at all, Cavendish takes them to possess the power of self-motion. On her view, when bodies interact, there is no transfer of motion. Because motion is a property, she argues, motion cannot be transferred between bodies. Following this line of reasoning, when bodies come into contact, they act as occasional causes, that is, causes that merely occasion a change. On this point, she and Malebranche are in agreement. The only candidate for such a connection is between the infinite will as cause, and its effects.

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Moreover, he seems to also endorse the claim that for a cause to bring out its effect, it must possess the knowledge of how to bring it about. In short, only God has the required knowledge to effect these kinds of changes. These arguments undergird the central Malebranchean commitment: the utter dependence of all created things on God. As such, it makes sense, on his system, to deny causal efficacy to anything other than God.

Such a denial of causal efficacy entrenches the dependence of created things on their creator. Cavendish tells a different kind of story here. Ambition leads certain thinkers to imagine that the immaterial substance of their souls is the only created thing that possesses self-motion. On this understanding of causation, they feel closer to God, who is radically self-moving, and superior to material things, which do not possess the ability to self-move.

However, Cavendish notes, the decree from God that introduces motion into the created world is just as easily imparted to material things as to immaterial things. As such, there is no reason to suppose that He did not give the power of self-motion to material things. For, on his view, no created thing, human souls included, possesses the power to self-move. The centrality of substance for the continental rationalists is further borne out by the importance of that concept for Spinoza, especially within his Ethics. The remaining parts trace the consequences of his conception of substance for epistemology, psychology, physics, and ethics.

Just as, in some places, Descartes treats bodies as mere modes of a single extended substance, so, for Spinoza, all individuals—both bodies and minds—are modes of a single substance. Spinoza arrived at this position by way of a decidedly uncartesian account of attributes. While Descartes held that two substances of the same type can share the same principal attribute, Spinoza rejected this. But, since modes are themselves both ontologically and causally dependent on the substances of which they are affections, they cannot be the individuating principle for them.

Thus, it must be the attributes themselves that individuate substances and not just types of substances, as Descartes argued. Similarly, while Descartes held that each substance is characterized by one and only one principal attribute, Spinoza invoked the principle of plenitude to show that substance must have infinite attributes. Based on a variation of the ontological argument, he maintained that substance is pure, utterly unlimited being. It must therefore, he argued, possess infinite attributes, in the dual sense of possessing unlimited attributes and of possessing all attributes.

Since substance is characterized by infinite attributes, and since no two substances can share a single attribute, there can be only one substance. This radical monism was repugnant to many who, like English philosopher Anne Conway, saw that it eliminated any and all distinction between the creator, God, and His creation.

Whereas, for Aristotle, individual things, such as Bucephalus, are paradigmatic substances, Spinoza denies their substantiality. Scholars are divided on this point. Curley has argued that Spinoza retains the conception of the substance-mode distinction as a distinction between independent and dependent being, but rejects the view that the substance-mode distinction correlates to the distinction between a subject of predication and its predicate. Whether or not Spinoza rejected the predicability of finite modes, it is clear that he did not regard them as either causally or conceptually independent in the way that is requisite for substance.

For Spinoza, finite minds are not themselves substances, but rather modes of thinking substance. That is, for Spinoza, at the most fundamental level, all minds reduce to the thinking substance of which they are affections. For Spinoza, God is just substance simpliciter. He lacks volition and personality; his only characteristics are pure being, infinity, necessity, and activity.


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The difference between them is not the necessity of the truths themselves but rather the route that we take to arrive at them. While mathematical truths, for instance, are deducible by reason alone, Spinoza recognized that the finitude of human understanding prevents, or at least impedes, our similarly deducing empirical facts about the world. In contrast with some empiricists, who regard cause and effect as mere constant conjunction, for Spinoza, the relationship between cause and effect has the force of a logical entailment; empirical facts are themselves necessary truths.

The universe is thus, in principle at least, perfectly intelligible to reason. For Spinoza, as for Descartes, the metaphysical commitment to substance underwrote a rationalist epistemology that strongly privileges reason and intuition over sensation and imagination. For Descartes, the mind and the body are, though intimately connected, radically heterogeneous.

How it is that the mind comes to know things about the physical world therefore remains, despite his best efforts, a somewhat murky business.

By rejecting the substantiality of both minds and bodies, and by regarding them both as modes of a single substance, Spinoza obviated this difficulty. For Spinoza, the mind and the body are the very same thing conceived in two different ways. Persistent clusters of qualities in space are bodies. Just as a single body has a corresponding objective reality, so collections of bodies characterized by various relations also have a corresponding objective reality with isomorphic parts and relations. Since there is no gap between minds and bodies, there is therefore no difficulty in principle in perceiving the physical world.

Despite the necessary connection the mind has with the body, argued Spinoza, sensation and imagination are inherently limited. The idea of substance qua substance must be a perfect unity. However, the idea which constitutes the human mind is complex—not a unity but a plurality of ideas. That idea is therefore confused, rather than clear and distinct. Reason and intuition, by contrast, provide us with access to just one idea—the substantial unity underlying our body and our mind.

To understand the substantial unity that is the necessary cause of our body and our mind is to grasp them sub specie aeternitatis. Thus, self-preservation is not just one possible goal of ethical agents; it is the very thing that makes those agents individuals.


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Our essence, and our ethical task, is thus to be active, whereas, by contrast, to be passive threatens our persistence. The mind persists through activity and is threatened by passivity. It is therefore in our self-interest to pursue adequate ideas through knowledge of the second and third kinds.

The more we join our minds with God through adequate knowledge of things under the form of eternity, the less we are affected by external things and, hence, by our own passions, which are nothing but our passivity in the face of forces external to us. Adequate knowledge of God gives us equanimity and calm, and literally ensures our persistence.

Ethical virtue is thus fundamentally epistemological. For Spinoza, the most rationalist of figures discussed here, the good life is the utterly rational life. As we have seen, rationalist epistemology is grounded in a metaphysical commitment to substance.