‘Substance’ (substantia, zelfstandigheid) is a key term of Spinoza’s philosophy. Like almost all of Spinoza’s philosophical vocabulary, Spinoza did not invent this term, which has a long history that can be traced back at least to Aristotle. Yet, Spinoza radicalized the traditional notion of substance and made a very powerful use of it by demonstrating – or at least attempting to demonstrate -- that there is only one, unique substance -- God (or Nature) -- and that all other things are merely modes or states of God. Some of Spinoza’s readers understood these claims as committing him to the view that only God truly exists, and while this interpretation is not groundless, we will later see that this enticing and bold reading of Spinoza as an ‘acosmist’ comes at the expense of another audacious claim Spinoza advances, i.e., that God/Nature is absolutely and actually infinite. But before we reach this last conclusion, we have a long way to go. So, let me first provide an overview of our plan.
In the first section of this paper we will examine Spinoza’s definitions of ‘substance’ and ‘God’ at the opening of his magnum opus, the Ethics. Following a preliminary clarification of these two terms and their relations to the other key terms defined at the beginning of the Ethics, we will briefly address the Aristotelian and Cartesian background of Spinoza’s discussion of substance. In the second section, we will study the properties of the fundamental binary relations pertaining to Spinoza’s substance: inherence, conception, and causation. The third section will be dedicated to a clarification of Spinoza’s claim that God, the unique substance, is absolutely infinite. This essential feature of Spinoza’s substance has been largely neglected in recent Anglo-American scholarship, a neglect which has brought about an unfortunate tendency to domesticate Spinoza’s metaphysics to more contemporary views.
The fourth section will study the nature of Spinoza’s monism. It will discuss and criticize the interesting yet controversial views of the eminent Spinoza scholar, Martial Gueroult, about the plurality of substances in the beginning of the Ethics; address Spinoza’s claim in Letter 50 that, strictly speaking, it is improper to describe God as “one”; and, finally, evaluate Spinoza’s kind of monism against the distinction between existence and priority monism recently introduced into the contemporary philosophical literature. The fifth and final section will explain the nature, reality, and manner of existence of modes. We therefore have an ambitious plan; let’s get down to business.