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William A. Earle

The Ontological Argument in Spinoza

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 11 (1951)

The ontological argument is universally discredited today, generally on logical grounds. It has become a platitude to assert that existence cannot follow from essence, that all analytic propositions are to be interpreted as hypotheses having no existential import. Our platitudes, however, would be falsehoods resting on an inadequate metaphysical analysis for a series of thinkers including Anselm, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Hegel, and Bradley. At each period the contemporaries of these men raised our objections for us and these objections were not unknown to the philosophers who rested their entire work on the ontological argument. At each period these philosophers insisted that the objections rested on a misunderstanding of precisely what the argument did and did not assert. Such misunderstandings will occur as long as we abstract the ontological argument from its metaphysical context; that is, as long as we alter the significance of the relevant terms. Since this entire context is probably clearest in Spinoza, I should like to reexamine the ontological argument as it occurs there in order to determine whether we are not committing the same errors of misinterpretation as did his contemporaries.

But before a discussion of the ontological argument proper, I should like to clarify the relation of this paper to that argument. I do not intend to “prove” the ontological argument in a direct fashion, since such a procedure would be in direct contradiction to the assertions of the argument. The argument states in some fashion that the existence of God or substance follows from his essence alone; to attempt then to give further grounds for the existence of God than those asserted by the argument would be to destroy that argument. The argument must stand or fall by itself; the only function of this discussion is to elucidate the argument, and not to prove it.

Briefly the argument states that there is an essence whose existence follows necessarily from that essence. That is all. It does not say: I have an idea of such an essence, and therefore God must exist as cause. Nor does it say: there are certain finite things, hence there must be a necessary being as cause. These are both variants of the cosmological argument, and although used by Spinoza, were considered by him to be a posteriori and of inferior certitude. Both rest upon a certain empirical fact, the existence of a certain sort of idea or of finite things; and both employ certain notions of causation which we cannot analyze here. But these considerations are irrelevant to the argument in its pure form, which asserts only that there is an essence which necessarily involves existence.

Spinoza does not assert that all essences involve existence, nor that essence as such involves existence. Here he would insist that most essences do not and cannot involve existence. The question concerns only one special essence, the essence of substance, or of that “which is in itself and conceived through itself.” This one, Spinoza asserts, must involve existence; and to see why, we must know what Spinoza means by the terms, “essence,” “existence,” and “substance.”

Let us first examine the notion of essence. Essence, for Spinoza, is not a purely logical term, the mere object of any definable sign. Essence expresses something positive, it expresses power or reality. It is certainly not what Santayana for example means by essence, a term wide enough to include square circles, as well as negations of these, etc. “Non-chair” for Santayana is an essence in the same sense as chair, though for Spinoza it would be a mere fiction of the mind, a mere word. From such a conception we could derive no positive properties; we would know only what the thing was not. “Positive” and “negative,” however, are slippery terms, since a word verbally negative may express something positive, as does the word “infinite,” for example. Essences cannot be self-contradictory and since the entire course of nature follows analytically from God who does all that he can do, it follows that there arc only essences for those things which were, are, or will be. Anything else must either contradict itself, or contradict what exists. Such unrealizables will be mere fictions of the mind or compositions of words.

Secondly, and more importantly, an essence is not an idea, or a psychological state of some sort. Spinoza distinguishes between the idea and the ideatum. The idea of a circle would therefore have two aspects: it is, to be sure, an idea, a mode of thought; but it is the idea of a circle which is not a mode of thought, but a determinate mode of extension. The circle is round, and all its radii are equal, whereas it would be absurd to speak of an idea as being round or having radii. Thought and extension have distinct properties, and neither is to be understood in terms of the other. This distinction is clear within the idea; an analysis of the idea itself will exhibit these two aspects. An idea of a house for example is clearly in one sense a psychological act, a mode of thought; but the idea is of something which is made of stone, wood, and bricks, and not ideas. The essence of house or of circle, therefore, neither is nor involves the notion of thought. It is independent of that psychological act which thinks it, and this can be seen within that psychological act itself. This distinguishability of idea and ideatum is essential to the objective and independent validity of thought. A geometer resolves the circle into its proper elements, planes, lines, and the central point; at no point need he mention the thought which is thinking all this. No geometry will be found to posit among its principles ideas as such or anything else psychological. Geometry and logic are sciences independent of psychology, studying objective relations among the things posited.

Not all ideata are essences of course. But here we are interested in those ideata which are essences and their structural and essential independence from the psychological act by which they are thought. That they are independent can be guaranteed within thought itself simply by the complete analysis of the essence thought of.

These relations hold even when we take as the object of some thought thought itself. If I have the idea of an idea, then the thought which I am thinking of is independent of the particular act of thought by which I think it. Now this should not be understood as asserting that we can think of essences without thinking at all; such would be obviously nonsense, and is asserted by nobody. But it would be asserted that there are aspects within any idea which are logically, structurally, and essentially independent of the act which thinks them, that such a distinction can be demonstrated within thought itself (by the reduction of the particular essence to its principles), and that the independence of any eidetic science from empirical psychology depends upon this distinction.

The conclusion of all this is simply that essences are not ideas, although sometimes ideas are ideas of essences the essences do not require that particular act of thought for their definition, and hence are structurally independent. This is a first step in the perception of the independence of essence: its independence from mind; it does not yet demonstrate that there are essences which are as a matter of fact existentially independent of everything.

Essences then are independent of the psychological act which thinks them; but, considered in themselves, they may be dependent upon other essences, or they may be absolutely independent. The essence of circle depends, among other things, on the essence of plane, of line, etc., since these other essences would figure in its definition. This order of derivation is of course logical, but it is mirrored in the level of existing things: an existing circle depends on an existing plane. The essence of island requires the essence of circumambient water; and so an existing island requires existing circumambient water. The order of essences and things is one and the same. A thing is a mode when it is conceived through another, and the essence of that mode will depend on the essence of that through which it is conceived. And just as the independence of essence from thought is discoverable within thought itself simply by the analysis of the essence, so the dependence or independence of the essence from other essences will be discoverable within thought alone by the adequate analysis of that essence. An independent essence will be one which is conceived through itself and which is in itself. These phrases clearly express the same thing: since things will depend existentially upon precisely those things on which their essences will essentially depend, independence of essence is the same as independence of existence. The discernment, therefore, of an essence which is thought through itself will be at the same time the discernment of that which exists through itself; defining the essence is precisely this act of discernment; hence as soon as God or substance is defined as being precisely that essence which is thought through itself, i.e., which is essentially independent, it is seen at the same time that he must exist.

But what kind of existence does such an essence have? Here again we must not import into Spinoza’s system conceptions of existence fundamentally foreign to it. For Spinoza there are two sorts of existence: eternity, and duration. Duration is that existence which modes have, and is measured by time; eternity is the existence which independent essences have. When Spinoza speaks of the existence of God he is not attributing to God some sort of surd, some irrational, brute, simply given mode of being; the existence of God, he tells us, is nothing but his essence: they are one and the same thing. To assert God’s existence, therefore, is to frame an analytic proposition. One is not adding an extrinsic property to an essence; ultimately the argument is simply the reaffirmation of the absolute independence of God’s essence. It is analytic, and therefore requires no additional grounds.

To attribute to God an existence which would add a new determinant to his essence would be to attribute to him the existence appropriate to modes, duration. We cannot know by an analysis of the essence of modes whether they exist or not; we must consult the order of nature which is to say, for finite minds, we must consult experience. Hence to interpret the ontological argument as attempting to prove a synthetic proposition by something like “rational intuition” is to misinterpret it completely. The argument was never anything but an analytic assertion. Whether such a proposition, along with the metaphysics derived from it is held to be “interesting,” “fruitful,” or “useful” or not depends on what sort of knowledge one is seeking; the ultimate use of such knowledge or any knowledge is a question which more properly falls within ethics, and is a question not neglected of course by Spinoza.

The existence of God is therefore his eternity, and his eternity is again the radical independence of his essence. He is substance, and substance is that which is and is conceived through itself. So again we see, now by an explication of the term, “existence,” that the argument is analytic. But why, it may be asked, do we not end with nothing rather than infinite substance consisting of infinite attributes, each one of which expresses infinite essence? This would be an objection only so long as we forgot Spinoza’s conception of essence; it is positive rather than negative, and expresses, therefore, some positive reality, rather than the mere negation of something which would as a matter of fact be nothing but a fiction, and a fiction which more clearly than anything else depended on something else, namely everything else. In a metaphor, substance at this level is like a light shining in a dark space; since the essence in question has already subsumed everything else under it as a modification, there is nothing left which can contradict or oppose it; it is free to expand out infinitely. And as darkness cannot quench light, neither can non-being destroy the being of substance.

The existence of God is thus an eternal subsistence. The existence or duration of modes on the other hand will differ from the eternity of God to the degree that their essence differs from his essence. Since modes are derived essentially, their existence will also be derived, that is to say, they will be dependent upon the rest of the universe; existence does not follow immediately from these essences but only from the existence of their causes, which are, in turn, dependent upon their own causes, etc.; existence for modes will therefore be transitory. Since the existence of a mode cannot follow from its essence, propositions asserting its existence will be synthetic, and experience will be needed by any finite mind in order to ascertain its truth. We can therefore see why existence will be a brute fact, a surd, when it is asserted of modes by finite minds; such properties will be consequences of Spinoza’s general conception of the relation between substance and modes. But if we were to begin with existence conceived after the fashion of duration, then clearly we could never arrive at the notion of eternal subsistence. The ontological argument asserting eternal subsistence would then be interpreted after the model of modes, and would always be absurd, a “synthetic” proposition, and wholly undemonstrable. On the other hand, beginning with the notion of an eternal subsistence, one can, if Spinoza is correct, derive a notion of existence or duration which is appropriate to our experiences of finite things.

In terms of this conception of the ontological argument, let us further consider some objections which have been made. The contention has been made, for example, that since the existence of God follows from his essence or definition, anything could be defined into existence, by simply including “existence” in the definition. Thus we might define a hippogriff as a “combined griffin and horse which exists.” Would not it then analytically follow that such a creature must exist? The reason that such a being could not exist for Spinoza is not that the combination of horse and griffin violates some supposed rule of nature; such we could not know by reason alone. Rather it is because the combination of these two terms combined with the notion of existence itself contains a contradiction. The first part of the definition, horse and griffin, determines a mode which intrinsically depends on other things, ultimately on the whole circumambient universe; to now assert that such a mode existed in itself would make it independent of that universe. Similarly with the example of the “most perfect island, one of whose perfections is existence.” An island is a piece of land surrounded by water. Its essence requires the essence of water, and its existence depends on the existence of the water. To then add that such an island existed in itself would be to contradict what we posited in the first part of the definition. (And if the island had only dependent existence, the point is granted: the island would only exist contingently.) Clearly the same argument would apply to any mode defined into existence. Existence follows only from certain essences, those namely which express infinity, independence, and substance.

Kant, in the portion of the Critique devoted to the refutation of the ontological argument, has no trouble disposing of it under the interpretation that it presents a synthetic judgment. But, if it is analytic, he says, then either the conception in your mind is identical with the thing, or else you have given us nothing but a “wretched tautology.” Clearly, the argument is analytic; that it thereby implies that the thing, God, is identical with your conception has already been disposed of; and that it is a tautology is true, but whether it is “wretched” or not will depend on what value we wish to place on the analytic clarification of existence.