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Spinoza on Essence Constitution


I argue that, against what is commonly believed, Spinoza’s use of the relation of constitution to characterize the relation between attributes and the essence of a substance does not indicate that, for him, there must be a numerical identity between each attribute and the essence constituted by that attribute. To do this, I follow a twofold strategy. First, I contend that the claim that because in Spinoza’s time constitution was understood as a one- to-one relation is mistaken: the main logicians of Spinoza’s time, all Cartesian philosophers, believe that the constitution of an essence can be a many-to-one relation. I show that Spinoza can both accept that constitution is a many-one relation and share Descartes’ understanding of this relation. Second, I defend the claim that Spinoza’s use of constitution in the Ethics is consistent with these logicians’ account of constitution. In particular, I focus on Spinoza’s inclusion of the intellect in the definition of attribute and his definition of God.

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  1. For example, all Della Rocca (2002), Melamed (2013), Lin (2019), and Shein (2009) seem to accept this claim. Other reasons for believing that attributes are numerically identical commonly discussed in Spinoza scholarship include: (1) Spinoza’s claim that attributes must be distinguished only by reason -e.g., Lin (2019) and Melamed (2017)-, (2) Spinoza’s use of the relation of expression in the Ethics -e.g., Della Rocca (2002) and Newlands (2018), and (3) the fact that positing the numerical identity of the attributes avoids the need of further explaining the unity of all attributes in one essence – e.g., Della Rocca (2008). Recently, Della Rocca (2019) has provided an innovative and insightful account of Spinoza’s view of number that can be regarded as a further reason for the view that attributes cannot be numerically distinct: (4) the claim that for Spinoza the notion of number cannot apply to attributes. I believe that each (1)-(4) deserves independent response by those believing that for Spinoza attributes are numerically distinct. However, my aim in this paper is limited to showing that the claim that attributes must be numerically identical because for Spinoza constitution is a one-one relation is mistaken. All my references to Spinoza’s works correspond to Curley’s translation (1984) -see reference list for abbreviations. All my citations of Descartes’s works correspond to Cottingham’s translation (1985).

  2. Gueroult (1968) and Smith (2014) are notable exceptions to this reading.

  3. Against this see Curley (1988). Curley believes that Spinoza’s rejection of (ii) is supported by his claim that attributes are what can be perceived by an infinite intellect as constituting an essence of substance rather than the essence of a substance. This reading is allowed by the Latin, which does not use articles. Thus, on this reading the number of essences of a substance is proportional to the number of the attributes of that substance. A similar view has been recently defended by Newlands (2019).

  4. Neither Clauberg (2007) or Arnauld and Nicole (1996) accept this view.

  5. For example, Burgersdijck (2011) and Heereboord (1654) do not recognize this possibility.

  6. Alan Donagan (1987) believes that the fact that this is how constitution was understood in Spinoza’s time is reflected in de Vries objection to the possibility of a substance having more than one numerically distinct attribute. In a letter to Spinoza (Ep.8), de Vries writes that “each substance has only one attribute, and if I had the idea of two attributes, I could rightly conclude that, where there are two different attributes, there are two different substances”. Note that de Vries seems to be following Descartes here: since each substance has only one attribute, wherever there are two attributes, there are two substances.

  7. As we have seen, Gueroult (1968) and Smith (2014) deny (i), whereas Curley (1988) denies (ii).

  8. It will later be clear that this account is, in a sense, similar to the Aristotelian understanding of essential attributes.

  9. For a detailed study of the main Dutch Cartesians of Spinoza’s time and their influence in his philosophy, see Douglas (2015). For an inventory of Spinoza’s Cartesian influences, see Van Bunge (2011).

  10. Both books were part of Spinoza’s library. The relation of constitution is more thoroughly developed in the latter book, which came to replace the first as the main logical textbook of its time and was published shortly after Spinoza abandoned the writing of the KV (late 1661 or early 1662) and before Spinoza completed the first draft of the Ethics (Verbeek 2015: 123-4).


Spinoza’s Works

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Borge, A.S. Spinoza on Essence Constitution. Philosophia (2022).

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  • Spinoza
  • Constitution
  • Attributes
  • Essence
  • Substance