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Amihud Gilead

Spinoza’s Principium Individuationis
and Personal Identity

International Studies in Philosophy, vol. 15 (1983)

Since Spinoza’s monism, unlike that of Elea, accepts and, moreover, necessitates a plurality of finite things, Spinoza has to construct a principium individuationis and principle of personal identity which should answer to his unique monism. In this paper I attempt to prove that adequate causality functions as that principium and principle in Spinoza’s monism, i.e. in his systematization. In the Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding (§§ 42, 91, 95 and 99) we see that the cognitive system to which Spinoza aspires should reflect the order and unity of Nature: our idea of it should represent Nature as it really is, as a unified whole composed of particular things which are its “parts”. Their principium individuationis has to satisfy the special requirements of Spinoza’s aspired-for system.


Spinoza’s tacit rejection the Eleatic monism appears, for example, in Ethics I, Proposition X, Note:

It is very far from being absurd ... to ascribe to one substance a number of attributes, since nothing in Nature is clearer than that each being must be conceived under some attribute, and the more reality or being it has, the more attributes it possesses expressing necessity or eternity and infinity. 1

Differentiations in Spinoza’s Substance are necessary, whereas for Parmenides, differentiation in Being means negation, which is, according to his conception, contradiction or absurdity: a mixing of the two possible ways, nothingness and Being, which must exclude one another. On the contrary, according to Spinoza, it is logically necessary to differentiate Substance infinitely – into both infinite attributes and infinite modes. Any cognition which conceives Reality as exempt from differentiations is abstract, i.e. confused and fictitious; therefore, the more Reality is conceived with particularity (particularius), the more clearly it is understood (Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding, § 55). A true, intellectual cognition of Reality consists of the recognition of particular things and the possibility of differentiating between them in order to avoid the illegitimate and fictitious type of general concepts which are abstractions of Reality. [41]

This attitude of Spinoza is consistent with his so-called “nominalism” (as expressed, for instance, in Ethics II, Prop. XL, Note 1). It is the infinite intellect, the complete system of all true and adequate ideas, which conceives the infinite modes necessarily: “From the necessity of the divine nature infinite [countless] numbers of things in infinite [countless] ways (that is to say, all things which can be conceived by the infinite intellect) must follow” (Ethics I, Prop. XVI). According to Spinoza, Substance or Reality (i.e. Deus sive Natura) is so complete or perfect and its laws so ample that they suffice for the production of everything which can be conceived by the infinite intellect (Ethics I, end of the Appendix).

The status of all these differentiations, the plurality which is conceived in Substance, is extra intellectum: that “which is objectively contained in the intellect must necessarily exist in nature. ... Therefore, the actual intellect, whether finite or infinite, must comprehend the attributes of God and the modifications of God, and nothing else” (Ethics I, Prop. XXX, Dem.). Attributes as well as their modifications are real and not subjective, as is often assumed by interpreters of Spinoza. Consequently, the infinite detailed abundance of Reality is real, necessary and eternal. The infinity of Substance means that it encompasses countless or infinite differentiations or modifications into infinite attributes and countless or infinite modes as well. Considering Spinoza’s monism, namely his systematization, it is important to note that intellect, whether infinite or finite, does not shatter Reality into wholly independent, discrete particular things; on the contrary, both intellects conceive these differentiations as modifications of the one coherent Reality or indivisible Substance. Spinoza excludes the possibility of dividing Substance realiter: Substance is differentiated modaliter only. Therefore there is no vacuum in Nature; all its “parts” – modes – are united and inseparable, so that neither gap nor break can exist in Reality (Ethics I, Prop. XV, Note). Differentiation of Reality into discrete parts would prevent knowledge of Nature – that continuous being all of whose particular things are modes of one Reality. Such a differentiation could not be consistent with Spinoza’s attempt to constitute a system of the knowledge of Reality, a system which would guarantee a close continuity among all conceptions of “parts,” among all conceptions of Reality’s modes, in order to construct a comprehensive knowledge of Reality qua Substance. Otherwise, each particular thing would be known by us as a finite substance, and that is a manifest contradiction according to Spinoza (Ethics I, Prop. XIII, Note). Then the only knowledge of Reality possible to us would be piecemeal or “episodic,” to use an Aristotelian term. 2 Reality itself is not an aggregate of things but an infinite, coherent system encompassing them all.

The above Spinozistic critique might be directed against any form of atomism from the 5th century B.C. until Spinoza’s day, and against the Cartesian theory of discrete or distinct evidence with its influences and metamorphoses as well, e.g., as in Hume’s theory. Hume understood well enough that [42] the reality of distinct, discrete and wholly independent perceptions invalidates or excludes necessary connections between them and, consequently, that only a shattered perception of reality is possible, a perception which excludes the possibility of necessary connections which are required for personal identity, causality and substance. Moreover, this Spinozistic critique is actually directed against a mathematical conception of Nature, a conception which uses measurable and divisible quantity, the products of imagination, the false cognition of Reality (Ethics I, Prop. XV, Note, and Letter XII). The mathematical way of conceiving Reality hinders any attempt to construct the cognitive system of Nature to which Spinoza aspires.

Let us conclude: the intellect discerns and distinguishes truly between particular things. Its differentiations, though made modaliter, are extra intellectum and real. However, the intellect does not separate them but binds these differentiations together by necessary connections. On the other hand, it is a necessary condition for the conception of Reality by the intellect, that Reality should be particularized into or be ample with singular things. “Being” conceived of as Parmenides’ undifferentiated whole – “ονδε διαιρετόν εστιν, επει παν εστιν ομοιν” (Fr. 8, line 22) 3 – could not be conceived at all by the intellect, whether finite or infinite, according to Spinoza, since it has no concreteness or individuality. 4 Such an abstract “being” is like “the night in which all cows are black”, 5 a transcendental concept which is illegitimate because abstract, the defective production of imagination. Since it is for Spinoza a truism and an assumption that Reality abounds in differentiations and particular things, any perception of it which obscures or conceals this abundance is false and fragmentary. Imagination, the first grade of cognition and the false one, consists entirely of illegitimate generalizations which blur and distort our perception of particular-ampled Reality. The intellect, opposing imagination and correcting it as well, conceives Reality as it really is, qua in se est.

The infinite immediate mode which is expressed in the attribute of extension as movement and rest, is expressed in the attribute of thought as infinite intellect (end of Letter LXIV). There is, therefore, an affinity between clear and distinct conception, that of the intellect, and the differentiation of bodies which is indicated by their ratio of movement and rest. This also illustrates how far Spinoza’s attitude toward this matter opposes that of Parmenides in particular and of Eleatic philosophy generally. 6

Such an interpretation of Spinoza is at odds with the critical interpretations of the Hegelian school. 7 According to them there should be no differentiations in Substance, since any differentiation or determination is negation, and there should be no negations in Substance, which is constituted by the absolute affirmation of absolute, infinite Being; differentiating in Substance means making it finite, and this is an absurdity; lastly, any attempt to “determine” Substance and to differentiate within it means to negate or to diminish it, to break it up. 8 This is a “Parmenidezation” of Spinoza’s theory which actually abolishes [43] Spinoza’s philosophical system.

Substance’s identity must be confirmed in and by all of its negations: the infinite and unconditioned negations (the attributes, though negating each other, constitute one “positive” Substance – as can be inferred from Ethics I, Prop, XIV, Dem.), the infinite and conditioned negations (the infinite modes) and lastly the finite, partial negations (the finite modes according to Ethics I, Prop. VIII, Note 1). Complete, absolute affirmation of infinite Substance means the gathering of all its negations in their unity and identity. Only because of the satisfaction of this condition could we say that Substance is the most differentiation-ampled of all beings and that a more content-rich being is impossible, since everything is included in Substance. Any cognition which cannot perceive every negation in Substance as another affirmation of it, conceives it abstractly – as a “whole” deprived of content, “something” which “includes,” as it were, everything indifferently and which, therefore, contains nothing actually, and of which nothing can be said, in which nothing can be discovered, an empty “identity”: “whole equals whole.” This is not the case with an identity constituted by the fact that every negation in Substance ascribes to it or discover in it additional, richer content. This latter, and it alone, is legitimate identity and content-rich. Its content includes all modes, all particular things. Reality embraces and contains them systematically or concretely, as differentiations of a one, coherent Individuum-Whole. Consequently, we should not refer “all individuals in Nature to one genus which is called the most general, that is to say, to the notion of being, which embraces absolutely all the individual objects in Nature” (Ethics IV, Preface). 9 On the contrary, Spinoza’s Substance should be the most concrete, coherent, systematical and, therefore, individual Being.

In Substance every potentiality has been actualized necessarily, and each possible particular thing has existed (see the discussion in Ethics I from Prop. XXXIII to Prop. XXXVI, all demonstrations and notes included). Therefore, we can say that every finite being or particular thing is a partial negation in Substance, and only the systematic Whole of all these negations is absolutely affirmative or positive (Ethics I, Prop. VIII, Note 1). Pari passu it is forbidden to deprive Substance of any of its negations without committing ourselves to absurdity, i.e., representing the absolute, infinite Being as if it were not so. A perfect Being cannot be deprived of any of its negations, and consequently it is perfect.

It can also be demonstrated that Substance as causa sui must be differentiated: since there is no cause without an effect, there is no natura naturans (Substance or its attributes) unless there is natura naturata, the modified or differentiated Nature (all modes or particular things). In Spinoza’s words: “in the same sense in which God is said to be the cause of Himself He must be called the cause of all things” (Ethics, I, Prop. XXV, Note). 10 Thus, it is clear why “From the necessity of the divine nature infinite [countless] numbers of things  [44] in infinite ways [countless modes] ... must follow” (Ethics I, Prop. XVI). The Corollary of Proposition XXV deals with particular things, and the Note refers to Proposition XVI. Thus Spinoza links causality and individuation.


Having proved that finite beings (qua modes) are real differentiations of Substance, we have now to find out what is their principium individuationis. This principle should function qua differentiating or distinguishing principle on the one hand and qua combining and connecting principle on the other. Unlike Hume, Spinoza assumes that distinct entities are not separable; on the contrary, they are bound together and united qua one, coherent and systematic Whole. Consequently, the discerning principle must function as a uniting principle as well.

Time and space have been employed by some major philosophers (e.g. Locke and Kant as the means of distinguishing things: two bodies cannot be in the same place simultaneously. Nevertheless, time and space, functioning as principium individuationis are not sufficient, because they are totally indifferent to particular things as such. Time and space are, at the most, external relations of things which cannot be deduced from their essences. Spinoza has his own reasons for criticizing and rejecting the distinctions of time, measure and number qua entia imaginationis (Letter XII, p. 57). 11 Time and space do not offer us any true knowledge about Reality and about real distinctions among particular things. The Reality, perfection and essence of any thing have nothing to do with its duration and time (Ethics IV, end of the Preface). The essence of a particular thing is its individuating factor (as implied in Ethics II, Prop. XXXVII and Def. II; compare Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding, §§ 55, 93, 95, 98 et al). Like any ens imaginationis, time too consists of an illegitimate generalization and abstraction, which cannot constitute the essence of any particular thing. Time, therefore, cannot function as an individuating factor, a factor which designates how particular things are really different and distinct from one another. Indeed, two different things have different essences although they themselves may endure equally and exist during the same time. It can be said, therefore, that time and space constitute a false principle of individuation, a principle of imagination, the first and lowest grade of cognition. 12 Moreover, time and space qua entia imaginationis are fragmenting factors, disconnecting factors which localize each particular thing in “its” fenced, separate location in space and time, as if it were isolated from the rest of Reality. 13 These factors, therefore, are obstacles in the way of Spinoza’s attempt to construct a one, coherent cognitive system of all particular things in Nature.

Thus, Spinoza must find a systematic, i.e., intelligible or rational principium individuationis which differs entirely from space and  time. Actually, the intellect [45] differentiates all distinctions of Substance, those of modes and particulars (Ethics I, Prop. XVI; Ethics II, Prop. XLV, Note) and those of attributes as well (Ethics I, Prop. XXX). It was noted above that there is an affinity between intelligibility and individuation in Spinoza’s theory. This point will be clarified below. In any case, intelligibility and understanding require necessary connections between particular things. A cognition which would consist of the ideas of distinct, wholly independent, discrete and isolated particular things is unintelligible and would render science and systematic cognition impossible. Yet, according to Hume, this is the only perception possible for us. His criticism has shown how both causality and rational knowledge of reality are impossible when discrete perceptions alone are to be had and when necessary connections are invalid.

It should be recalled at this point that according to Spinoza “In the nature of things there is nothing contingent, but all things are determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in certain manner” (Ethics I, Prop. XXIX). Contingency is a matter of ignorance only: we speak of contingency when the “order of causes is concealed from us” (Ethics I, Prop. XXXIII, Note 1). It is causality, qua necessary nexus, which prevents contingency. Spinoza assumes that there must be a reason or cause for the existence or non-existence of everything (Ethics I, Prop. XI, the first “Another Demonstration”; compare Prop. VIII, Note 2.) In Spinoza’s worldview there is no place for a phrase such as “for no particular reason.” Each particular thing and each particular action has its own necessary, particular causes or reasons.

I propose to show now that according to the philosophy of Spinoza the principle of individuation and personal identity consists in the necessary nexus between adequate cause and its effect. This nexus is expressed as follows: in the attribute of thought, as the nonformal, intellectual nexus between a reason (or premise) and its conclusion, between a condition and its conditioned, i.e., the nexus of adequacy which exists between clear and distinct ideas; in the attribute of extension, as the proportion (ratio) of movement and rest, which in this attribute is the identification mark of the relationship between activity (causation) and passivity (“being-effected”). 14 This approach is a considerable aid to understanding Spinoza’s aspiration to construct a system of the total, adequate knowledge of Reality. I will show step by step that such is Spinoza’s approach to individuation.

By singular things I understand things which are finite and which have a determinate existence; and if a number of individuals (individua or singularia [of besonderen]) so unite in one action that they are all simultaneously the cause of one effect, I consider them all, so far, as a one singular thing” (Ethics II, Def. VII).

This definition points out what is the principle of individuation and personal identity, the principle which renders the systematization of all ideas (cognitions) of particular things possible. In such an aspired-for, coherent system the singular, unique identity of each particular thing is not blurred or diffused but is [46] realized completely. Moreover, this is the principle of identity and unity of natura naturans itself, of God-Nature-Substance qua infinite attributes in their systematical unity and qua free causa sui. In other words, Substance or Reality, as one Totality, is the only, adequate and complete cause of all existing things, all of which exist in it and are conceived through it. According to this reasoning, as well as stating that “in the same sense in which God is said to be the cause of Himself He must be called the cause of all things” (Ethics I, Prop XXV, Note), we may say that since God is the cause of all particular things and since all are included in Him, He is causa sui. The knowledge of an effect depends upon and involves the knowledge of the cause (Ethics I, Axiom IV): the knowledge of an effect points to that of the cause and brings us nearer to it (Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding, § 92 and Note). This does not mean that we recognize particular things through their particularization or derivation from the idea of Substance as such, that idea which is known to us by the a priori procedure of knowledge (discussed in section VII of this paper); quite the contrary: by the a posteriori procedure alone (explained there too) we should acquire knowledge of Substance through our acquaintance with particular things (Ethics V, Prop XX-IV) as connected together systematically. We cannot display the uniqueness and identity of any particular thing except by its relation to the coherent Whole of all particular things. Its uniqueness or singularity is ensured and guaranteed solely by the necessary, adequate cause-and-effect connections between it and other particular things and the Whole as well. The same necessary connections, which constitute the coherence and unity of the complete System of Reality (qua perceived by the aspired-for system of knowledge) render possible our acquaintance with the uniqueness and identity of each particular thing. In other words, they are its principle of individuation and personal identity: within the whole of Reality there is no other particular thing which can occupy its place (can function instead of it) in the total causal chain (concatenation or series) which is one of the attributes (according to Ethics II, Prop. VII, Note). Thus, only by adequate causality may we hope to display the indispensability of each particular thing in Reality. The same is true of the clear and distinct idea of that thing: in the whole, true system of knowledge, in the infinite intellect which consists of all clear and distinct ideas, there is no other idea which can take its place. The total causal chain, the system of Reality (Nature-Substance in Spinoza’s terms) qua conceived by the infinite intellect, needs each of its links. Such a link, a finite mode or the essence of a particular thing, is unique and indispensable. Without it the whole causal chain would be, as it were, disconnected and defective, and this is impossible since Reality is perfect and unalterable. The existence of any particular thing is necessitated in accordance with the rule that there is nothing contingent in the nature of things and that all things are determined from the necessity of Reality to exist and act in a certain mode (Ethics I, Prop. XXIX). These things are modes, while God is their cause (Ethics I, Prop. XXIX, Dem.). In other words, there is no way to display the [47] cause or the reason for the identity and particularity of any particular thing except by recognizing its essence as a necessary, indispensable link in a chain all of whose particulars (its modes) are joined together to constitute a coherent, systematic Whole by necessary, causal connections. Any thing which cannot function as such a link, i.e. which is not an adequate (sufficient and necessary or exclusive) cause of any effect or which, as such, cannot be conceived qua clear and distinct idea – such a thing is not a particular thing having an identity and particularity of its own, but a part of come particular thing at the most.


I will now consider a special aspect of the problem – the principium individuationis qua principle of personal identity. 15

One of the cardinal points in the philosophy of Spinoza is his assumption that we do not have immediate awareness of our personal identity: “The mind does not know itself unless in so far as it perceives the ideas of the affections of the body” (Ethics II, Prop. XXIII); “man is conscious of himself ... by means of the affections by which he is determined to act” (Ethics III, Prop. XXX, Dem.); “The human mind does not know the human body itself, nor does it know that the body exists except through ideas of affections [modifications] by which the body is affected” (Ethics II, Prop. XIX). Regarding this point there ought to be a principal disagreement between Spinoza and Descartes. Actually, Spinoza does criticize Descartes for separating mind from body, for making it “easier” to know the mind than to know the body and, moreover, for claiming that the mind’s self-knowledge is immediate, discrete and self-evident. Clarity and distinctness according to Spinoza are actually “properties or intrinsic denominations of a true idea” (Ethics II, Def. IV), of an adequate idea, and he uses ‘adequate idea’ and ‘clear and distinct idea’ synonymously (e.g. in Ethics II, Prop. XXXVI by sive). Since adequacy consists of the necessary connections and of the common properties of all particular things, Spinoza’s clarity and distinctness differ entirely from these terms in Descartes’ philosophy, where they function by isolation, separateness and analysis. Moreover, what could be more antithetic to the notion of Descartes’ cogito in the Second Meditation than Spinoza’s remark that “The idea which forms the nature of the mind is demonstrated ... not to be clear and distinct when considered in itself” (Ethics II, Prop. XXVIII, Note) ?

Spinoza argues that the mind knows itself qua cognition (idea) of an active or passive body: the mind gets acquainted with its own identity and unity by investigating its place in the causal chain, either as the cognition of a body in the attribute of thought, or, in the attribute of extension, as a body which has a certain ratio of movement and rest. This ratio is the proportion or relation of its activity to its passivity as an extended thing. A more active and powerful body [48] determines a less active and feeble one and causes it to act, while it is determined and caused to act by another, more active body, ad infinitum. When I identify myself qua the only cause of effects which could not exist as they are, were I not their cause – then I know myself by an adequate knowledge which grasps my state as it really is. However, when I am aware of myself qua affected by another cause which is not myself, then my self-cognition is inadequate, and I know myself and my power partially only: qua ability to be enacted as a singular effect of this or that cause. It should be remembered that nothing exists from whose nature some effect does not follow (Ethics I, Prop. XXXVI), which implies that Substance must be differentiated in such a way that its infinite ability or power displays itself in each of its particulars, and therefore it is absolutely infinite or all-inclusive. There are no disconnections, gaps or breaks in the chain (series) of causes, and everything finds its exclusive place in it.

Qua a partial, incomplete expression of this infinite power which cannot be exhausted in any of its finite expressions, I function as a cause of some effect. If each particularization (modification) of Substance is necessary and indispensable, then there are effects that would not have existed were I not their cause. By the mediation of the knowledge which I have of them I recognize and know myself; by it solely, and not immediately by self-evidence nor by a mystical “jump.” Spinoza must therefore reject the Cartesian criteria of evidence as well as any type of immediate, “atomic,” or discrete evidence whatsoever, otherwise the possibility of the aspired-for system would be rendered impossible – and so would the possibility of personal identity. According to such a consideration both the theories of Descartes and Hume alike render personal identity impossible by breaking it up into a bundle of ideas.

At this point the problem of the simplest bodies should be mentioned: actually, according to Spinoza, such bodies cannot exist, although he himself uses the term ‘simplest bodies’ (Ethics II, Prop. XIII, Lemma III, Axiom 11). Each body is a complex and a simple relative to other bodies, for complexity and simplicity are relative terms. 16 Each mode participates in the infinity of Substance, and the absolute indivisibility of Substance is expressed in the infinite “divisibility” of each mode. 17 The identity of the latter relates to everything which is its cause or effect and can never be a simple, “atomic,” discrete or immediate identity. Synthesis, not analysis, displays personal identity. Adequate causality renders it possible, moreover, necessitates it.


As indicated above, Spinoza has to construct a rational (intellectual) principium individuationis, quite different from time and space which function as principium individuationis for Locke and Kant mutatis mutandis.

In Ethics I, Prop. XVI and its Corollaries Spinoza points to the close affinity [49] of causality and intellect: there is an intimate connection between the particularization of Substance, insofar as the intellect can differentiate it, and Substance as the cause of all things. This affinity is inferred from the connection which Spinoza makes between Axiom V in Ethics I – “Those things which have nothing in common cannot be understood [intelligi]through one another” – and Proposition III – “If things have nothing common with one another, one cannot be the cause of the other.” The Demonstration of this latter proposition is based on Axiom V: to exist in God means also to be conceived through (or by means of) God as well as to be caused by Him (Ethics I, Prop. XVIII, Dem.). In Section 92 of the Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding Spinoza points again to the close affinity between causality and intelligibility. 18 This affinity or linkage is instructive: the intellectual activity (i.e. understanding) is clear and distinct (i.e. adequate), but its clarification does not consist in analysis into simple, discrete elements, but of establishing necessary connections and conditions – i.e., of relatedness, not of isolation and decomposition. In order to understand something we have to fit its idea into a wide network of ideas which condition and are conditioned, a network which reflects a complete chain of causes and effects. Such a chain is a system of coherence.

Let us discuss two texts which show how Spinoza relates causality, individuation and personal identity:

I call that an adequate cause whose effect can be clearly and distinctly perceived by means of the cause. I call that an inadequate or partial cause whose effect cannot be understood [intelligi] by means of the cause alone (Ethics III, Def. I).

I say that we act when something is done, either inside us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause, that is to say (by the preceding Def.) when from our nature something follows, either inside us or outside us, which can be clearly and distinctly understood solely by means of that nature. On the other hand, I say that we are passive when something is done inside us [when something happens to us], or when something follows from our nature of which we are not the cause except partially (Ethics III, Def. II).

Here Spinoza interchangeably uses causal concatenation and logical entailment or implication. This is justified by the rule that the order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things (Ethics II, Prop. VII). Adequacy, clarity and distinctness relate to ideas only, between which there is a necessary connection of entailment, whereas between a cause and its effect the relation is one of causation. However, these two kinds of connection or relation are but the same necessary nexus which is manifested or expressed in two ways: the one “formal” and the other – “objective.” We may use, therefore, the expression ‘an adequate cause’ in so far as this cause is conceived, qua clear and distinct idea, through (by means of) the attribute of thought. This is why ideas cause (i.e. entail) one another and why causation (qua entailment) is a relation between ideas too.

In the above-mentioned Definition II the adverb solum (solely) should be emphasized: we are active in so far as we cause an effect which can be caused [50] solely by us, or whose concept can be conceived exclusively through our concept. This is the only way to get acquainted with ourselves and it necessitates a linkage with the whole of Reality; otherwise, how could we know that we are the exclusive or the only cause of a certain deed or fact?

Many of Spinoza’s conclusions in Parts III and IV of the Ethics are based on the two above-mentioned Definitions. The Note of Ethics III, Prop. III is particularly instructive:

... the passions are not related to the mind, unless in so far as it possesses something which involves negation; in other words, unless in so far as it is considered as a part of Nature which by itself and without the other parts cannot be clearly and distinctly perceived. 19

Positively speaking we might say: the active emotions, which are properties of our adequate knowledge, exist in our soul in so far as it possesses something that involves affirmation; in other words, in so far as it is considered as a part of Nature which by itself and without the other parts can be clearly and distinctly perceived as such a part of Nature, different and distinct from all its other parts (as exemplified by the particles of the blood in Letter XXXII). Such a part of Nature is conceived by itself as distinct, not qua isolated and wholly independent, so to speak, but qua a finite part, one link in the complete causal chain of the whole order of Nature. Since not all things are caused by us and since there are many facts which are not caused by us alone because of which we are called passive, our position in the causal chain relates us, in the final analysis, to the whole chain. Indeed, we are always dependent on Nature, nevertheless, “the more the actions of a body depend upon itself alone, and the less other bodies cooperate with it in action, the better adapted will the mind be for distinctly understanding” (Ethics II, Prop. XIII, Corollary, Note). Although God or Substance (Reality as the Whole or Totality) alone is called causa sui and a free cause by Spinoza (Ethics I, Prop. XVII, Corollary 2), finite things, nevertheless, may be called free, too, in so far as they are adequate causes. In such a restricted sense they are self-caused and self-determined: some of their actions are caused by themselves exclusively. To a certain extent, therefore, a particular thing is causa sui in a qualified sense while Substance (God) alone is absolute causa sui, self-caused without any restrictions or qualifications. In any case, because of the above consideration, Spinoza can use expressions such as ‘human freedom,’ ‘free man,’ etc.

The free man, who is the wise man, is conscious of himself, knows himself, God and things, and his existence consists of his activity, whereas the ignorant man, on the other hand, lives in ignorance of himself, of God and of things, “and as soon as he ceases to be passive ceases also to exist” (Ethics V, Prop. XLII, Note). The consciousness of the free man consists in the knowledge of his own impression on the whole causal chain which constitutes Reality qua System. In other words, the wise man is acquainted with his eternity. [51]


Let us consider movement and rest again. Some interpreters consider them to be the principium individuationis of Spinoza. In Ethics II, Prop. XXXVII it is said that that which is common to everything does not constitute the essence of any singular thing. This proposition is based on the second Lemma of Ethics II – “All bodies agree in some respect” – and its Demonstration specifies that they have this in common that they are capable generally of motion and rest. Consequently, by motion and rest alone we cannot tell what really differentiates, “in the final account,” any particular extended thing from any other. In other words, by motion and rest alone we cannot grasp the essences of these things. However, the ratio of movement and rest of each body is nothing but the ratio between its activity and passivity, in other words – the ratio between its being an adequate cause on the one hand and an effect on the other. That ratio, therefore, indicates this body’s particularity and distinctness but, on the other hand, cannot function qua principium individuationis and, consequently, cannot guarantee that no two bodies having the same ratio of movement and rest should not exist in Nature as a whole. Indeed, when Spinoza is considering the properties of things (Ethics II, Prop. XL, Note 2) he is referring to the Corollary of Prop. XXXVIII which refers to the above-mentioned Lemma II. From this we can conclude that movement and rest are two of the common properties of extended things and consequently, that they are not their essences, their individuating and identifying factors. The cognition of the essences of things precedes and conditions the understanding of their properties (Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding, § 95). The properties of a thing must be inferred or deduced from its definition (op. cit., § 96 II), and its definition must explain its “affirmative, private essence” (op. cit., §§ 93 and 95). We can conclude, then, that movement and rest, qua properties of bodies, do indicate and express the differences between bodies and their particularity and identity, but cannot constitute them.

Spinoza binds together the individuating and identifying factor (essence), the principle of individuation and identity (adequate causality) and the clear and distinct understanding (intellectual conception). He binds together the private, affirmative essence and the clear and distinct idea (op. cit. § 98), and this essence – with the approximate cause of a thing (op. cit. § 96). The links in the real causal chain are the essences of particular things. So must for the linkage between the principium individuationis et personal identity and the individuating and identifying factor according to Spinoza. 20 [52]


At this point let us bear in mind that the real causal chain is not linear but a “network” system. The nexus among particular things is actually a plexus: all particulars of Nature are interconnected, interwined and interwoven with and into each other (see Letters XXX and XXXII). Each of these particulars is conditioned by the Whole; on the other hand, each conditions the Whole. If the Whole, qua ultimate, adequate cause, is the sufficient and necessary condition of each of its particulars-modes, qua its effect, the latter is a sufficient and necessary condition of the former, the Whole itself. The first conditioning, that of the particular thing by the Whole, precedes the latter conditioning, that of the Whole by its particular, and renders it possible. It should be emphasized, therefore, that the Whole, too, depends on each of its particulars: an absence of one of them would alter the complete, perfect Whole, and such a change is impossible (Ethics I, Prop. XXXIII, Dem.). From that dependence can be drawn some important and meaningful implications, but they are beyond the scope of this paper.


In order to make my interpretation and elaboration clearer, the following question should be answered: how, according to Spinoza, is the knowledge (or acquaintance) of individuation, uniqueness and indispensability of any particular thing possible “from the standpoint of Substance”?

Considering the two necessary procedures of knowing the differentiation of Substance – the a priori (“synthetical”) procedure and the a posteriori (“analytical”) procedure, the former alone is not sufficient for acquaintance with the uniqueness and indispensability of each differentiation of Substance. The a priori procedure is the knowledge “from the standpoint of Substance.” This procedure is the method of general rules of knowing by ratio the general features of all things qua modes of Substance, namely their common properties that should be differentiated from their essences, i.e., the factors of individuation, uniqueness and indispensability of the differentiations. This procedure is a necessary way of knowing generaliter how all things constitute the one, total Reality-Substance. Yet, in order to get acquainted or to know Substance particulariter qua modified, namely to know that such is the case, the a posteriori (“analytical”) procedure is required. This procedure is, on the one hand, the particularization of the general rules and method of the a priori procedure, and, on the other hand, the complete emendation or correction of the data of imaginatio. Only such a procedure shows and proves specifically (Ethics V, Prop. [53] XXXVI, Note) how the uniqueness of each of the modes of Substance is possible, or, more precisely, necessary. Such a complete correction is part and parcel of the supreme grade of knowledge, scientia intuitiva, which is the knowledge of, or the acquaintance with, the essences of particular things (Ethics II, Prop. XL, Note 2 and Ethics V, Prop. XXXVI, Note), whereas the general method belongs to the second grade of knowledge, ratio, the knowledge of the common properties of all things; and whereas the data, which need correction, are supplied by the first grade of knowledge, imaginatio.

Spinoza differentiates between two causal chains: the transient (see, e.g., Ethics I, Prop. XXVIII and Ethics II, Prop. XLVIII, Dem.) and the immanent (Ethics I, Prop. XVIII and Ethics V, Prop. XL, Note). The first is the product of the Weltanschauung of the imaginatio, i.e., the common order of Nature, which is mutilated by time, place, contingency and all other factors of fragmenting, whereas the second is the product of the supreme kind of knowledge and its a posteriori procedure, itself guided by the a priori procedure according to the method and general rules of the latter.

Spinoza’s claim that by intellectual acquaintance with particular things (singulars) we know the one, coherent Totality (God: Ethics V, Prop. XXIV, cf. Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding, §  92, Note 30 and § 98), emphasizes his view that all things qua particulars (i.e. qua causes and effects in the total chain of causes and effects which is causa sui) constitute one Deus sive Natura, one Substance of which they are all modes. Nature as a Whole is one Individuum whose parts, i.e., all bodies, differ or change in infinite ways without any change of the Individuum as a whole (Ethics II, Note of Lemma VII after Prop. XIII).

I refer to all particular things, i.e., ideas or bodies, whether they are conceived falsely or correctly, since Spinoza emphasizes that “whatever is, is in God, and nothing can either be or be conceived without God” (Ethics I, Prop. XV) and that, consequently, all ideas are in God, “and in so far as they are related to God are true” (Ethics II, Prop. XXXII, cf. Prop. XXXVI, Dem.). Therefore, even “inadequate and confused ideas follow by the same necessity as adequate or clear and distinct ideas” (Ethics II, Prop. XXXVI). By removing methodically (according to the rules of the a priori procedure) the fragmenting factors such as place, time, birth, death, contingency and all other entia imaginationis (numbers and figures included – see Letter XII) we can see in the supreme grade of knowledge how each particular thing is actually a mode of the one Totality; in other words, we can see that each such particular thing is necessary, eternal and real (three that are one according to Ethics I, Prop. X, Note; Prop. XXIII, Dem.). In the light of the above interpretation we are now in a position to understand Spinoza’s following statements: “In Nature there is nothing contingent but all things are determined from the necessity of the divine nature to exist and act in certain manner” (Ethics I, Prop. XXIX [italics added]); “All things have necessarily followed from the given nature of God (Prop. [54] XVI) ...” (Ethics I, Prop. XXXIII, Dem. [italics added]); “Whatever we conceived to be in God’s power necessary exists” (Ethics I, Prop. XXXV [italics added]), and “For the existence or non-existence of everything there must be a reason or cause” (Ethics I, Prop. XI, First Another Dem. [italics added]).

This reason or cause (ratio sive causa) is indeed the principium individuationis according to Spinoza. That unique principle is consistent with Spinoza’s monistic credo: the one God is the immanent (systematic, coherent all-embracing) cause of all things (Ethics I, Prop. XVIII), since (according to Prop. XV) all things which are, are in God and must be conceived through (by) Him (Ethics I, Prop. XVIII, Dem.). Proposition XVI of Ethics I – “From the necessity of the divine nature infinite [countless] things in infinite ways (that is to say, all things which can be conceived by the infinite intellect) must follow” – means, again, that “nothing can be nor can be conceived without God but ... all things are in God” (Ethics I, Prop. XVII, Dem.). Moreover, Spinoza’s principium individuationis makes his monism, or rather his monistic pluralism (a non-Eleatic monism as I have attempted to prove in this paper), “possible,” i.e., necessary. Necessary, logical connections and forces, i.e., causal-rational connections, guarantee and display the indispensability of each particular thing, qua mode of the total Reality (Substance) – the causa sui or the cause of all particular things. Each such particular thing forms a necessary, unique and indispensable link in the total causal chain which embraces each real, existing thing in its own proper location in that chain. [55]

1 I quote from Ethics Preceded by On the Improvement of the Understanding by Benedict de Spinoza, Edited with an Introduction by James Gutmann. New York, Hafner, 1949. “The text of the Ethics ... is based on the translation by William Hale White (1883) as revised by Amelia Hutchinson Stirling (1894, 1899) and the text of the Improvement of the Understanding is the translation by R.H.M. Elwes (1884)” (Ibid., p. vii). Here and there my quotations below diverge slightly from these translations when it may be justified by collation with the original Latin in Gebhardt’s edition (Heidelberg, 1925).
2 Cf. Aristotle, Metaphysics XII, 10, 1075b37-1076a4.
3 G. S. Kirk & J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, London, Cambridge U.P., 1969, p. 275.
4 Cf. H.F. Hallett, Aeternitas. A Spinozistic Study, London, Oxford U.P., 1930, pp. 92, 144-145, 154-157, 158, 194, 320, 323-325; and E.E. Harris, Salvation from Despair: A Reappraisal of Spinoza’s Philosophy, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1973, pp. 64 ff. Neither Hallett nor Harris attaches issue to the question of Substance’s intelligibility or to the nature of the system to which Spinoza aspires.
5 Hegel’s Phänomenologie des Geistes, Hamburg, Felix Meiner, 1952, p. 19. Hegel misunderstands this characteristic of Spinoza’s philosophy.
6 I cannot accept, therefore, the interpretation of Gebhardt at this point. See his Spinozas Abhandlung über die Verbesserung des Verstandes, Heidelberg, 1905, pp. 114-115. [55]
7 See Hegel’s Wissenschaft der Logik, erster Teil, Hamburg, Felix Meiner, 1971, p. 151: “So ist das eleatische Sein oder die spinozische Substanz...” Hegel’s followers in this respect are J.E. Erdmann in his Versuch einer wissenschaftlichen Darstellung der Geschichte der neueren Philosophie, Stuttgart, F. Fromanns Verlag, 1933, Vol. 3, pp. 86ff; H.H. Joachim in his A Study of the ‘Ethics’ of Spinoza, N.Y., Russell and Russell, 1964, as it was characterized by H.F. Hallett in Benedict de Spinoza: The Elements of his Philosophy, London, University of London, The Athlone Press, 1957, p. 89, note 3; and others.
8 These are their interpretations of Ethics I, Definition VI, Explanation; Prop. VIII, Note 1; Prop. XIV, Dem. and of the famous “determinatio negatio est”(of Letter L) to which Erdmann (and others) adds, incorrectly, omnis (op. cit., p. 88).
9 Page 189 in Gutmann’s edition.
10 Cf. Short Treatise, Part I, Ch. III, § 2v. Substance’s self-determination or self-causality is its freedom (according to Ethics I, Definition VII). This determination is Substance’s necessary differentiation, which means that each particular thing is a part of a one, coherent being, a one system all of whose individua are determined by one another and by the perfect (complete) Whole, and this is its freedom (cf. Harris, op. cit., pp. 122-123). According to this interpretation we can suggest that the Parmenidean being is not free and is not causa sui, because there exist neither determination nor action in it, and consequently such a being is not necessary. Necessary determinations characterize necessary existence (or eternity and reality – Ethics I, Prop. X, Note) of Reality. Parmenidean being, therefore, being deprived of any negation, differentiation or determination to act – is not an absolute, necessary being, as was assumed by Parmenides. Since it cannot be said to be unconditioned and absolute infinite (total), since it cannot be said to be causa sui, then there is no necessary reason which justifies or necessitates its existence.
11 In Heidelberg edition: Spinoza Opera im Auftrag der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, herausgegeben von Carl Gebhardt, V. IV, Heidelberg, 1925, p. 57; and in A. Wolf (trans. et ed.), The Correspondence of Spinoza, London, Allen & Unwin, 1928, p. 118. Cf. Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding, §  87; Ethics V, Prop. XXIX, Note and Prop. XXXVII, Note – on time and place.
12 Complete and unrestricted acquaintance with the real principle of individuation can be achieved by the supreme grade of knowledge, by scientia intuitiva. Cf. R. Brandom, “Adequacy and the Individuation of Ideas in Spinoza’s Ethics,” Journal of the History of Philosophy XIV, 1976, p. 15).My interpretation is that only scientia intuitiva can correct completely the data of imaginatio, the perception of time and place especially, and can constitute a cognition which is completely unrestricted (or unqualified), a proper, “full” sub specie aeternitatis knowledge. As a finite part of Nature, every one of us is a part of “the common order of nature” always (Ethics IV, Prop. IV, Dem. and Corollary), and so we must perceive things to some extent (as minimal as possible) as existing in time and space. On the linkage between “the common order of nature”, the way by which imagination perceives Reality, and time (or duration) see Ethics II, Prop. XXIX, Corollary; Prop. XXX Dem.; Prop. XXXI and Corollary.
13 I cannot accept, therefore, Ruth L. Saw’s interpretation of our problem in The Vindication of Metaphysics, N.Y, Russell & Russell, 1972, and in Ch. VIII and in “Personal Identity in Spinoza,” Inquiry XII, 1969, pp. 1-14. According to Spinoza a real knowledge of personal identity or of any form of individuation has nothing to do with either time or with continuous enduring in time, although it may be reflected in time (or indicated by it) but not necessarily. We can arrive at this conclusion from analysis of the very example in Ethics IV, Prop. XXXIX, Note. Ruth Saw suggests [56] that personal identity endures in the system of space and time of natura naturata, but actually according to Spinoza it is correct to say that space and time are entia imaginationis which construct the false view of Reality as the “common order of nature” and not as the real natura naturata at all.
14 L.C. Rice, in his “Spinoza on Individuation”, The Monist LV, 1971, pp. 640-659, points to the linkage between individuation or personal identity and causality or activity. My interpretation in its development and context is quite different from his, as can be seen below. However, his criticism of Ruth Saw’s above-mentioned approach is quite correct, to my mind, and so is his criticism of Joachim’s Study, since a particular thing is not nullified in Reality but rather is realized in it. Rice uses Strawson’s theory of individuation in order to suggest that the “criteria of identification and reidentification of Spinoza’s theory are wholly geared to bodies in space” and that, consequently, mental identity is derived from this identity (Ibid., p. 657) – this suggestion is not consistent with either the unity of the attributes or with their independence from one another: we cannot “drive” from the attribute of extension to that of thought. Rice, therefore, does not offer a satisfactory solution for the problem of mental identity at least, or for that of individuation in general in the attribute of thought.
     Brandom, in the above-mentioned paper, considers the linkage between individuation and adequacy, but his interpretation at this point is neither clear nor explicit enough. Cf. note 20 below.
15 My analysis here renders a “mystical” interpretation of Spinoza’s theory invalid, in so far as such an interpretation would involve a negation of individuation and of personal identity (or identification). See, for instance, Paul Wienpahl’s “egolessness” in his “mystical” interpretation of Spinoza’s philosophy: The Radical Spinoza, N.Y., New York University Press, 1979, pp. xi, 93, 98, 155. “There are not, properly speaking, entities... What we have taken to be the real distinctions between things dissolve,” pp. 160-162.
16 Cf. Rice’s paper, op. cit., p. 647.
17 See M. Gueroult, “Spinoza’s Letter on the Infinite (Letter XII, to Louis Meyer)”, translated by K. McLaughlin, in: M. Grene (ed.), Spinoza: A Collection of Critical Essays, N.Y., Anchor Press, Doubleday, 1973, p. 195.
18 Cf. Short Treatise, Part II, Chap. V, § 11.
19 Cf. Ethics IV, Prop. II and Dem.; Ibid., Appendix, § 1.
20 It should be mentioned that according to Short Treatise, Part I, Chapter V, §§ 1 and 2, conatus may be an indicator of personal identity. This was considered in A. Lessing, “Inability to Exist is Impotence ... Ability to Exist is Power”, The Human Context VII, 1975, pp. 458-462. According to Lessing conatus is the principle of individuation and of personal identity in Spinoza’s philosophy. Cf. Brandom’s paper. According to Brandom’s interpretation, the second grade of knowledge conceives the property of individuation which is common to all things (that property is the ratio of movement and rest), and, on the other hand, the third grade of knowledge conceives the particularizing essence of the Individuum, which is its conatus.
   If I may suggest, conatus itself could not function qua principle of individuation and personal identity in Spinoza’s philosophy, unless conatus would have the cognitive-intellectual content which Spinoza requires as ground for a principle of individuation: in the attribute of thought conatus is considered as will (Ethics III, Prop. IX, Note); will and intellect are the same (Ethics II, Prop. XLIX, Corollary); and, consequently, conatus may be considered qua intellect. Moreover, the supreme conatus of the soul and the highest of its virtues is to understand things by the third kind (grade) of knowledge (Ethics V, Prop. XXV). Indeed, according to Spinoza the unique ability and power of man is his intellectual one.