Spinoza on Causa Sui

In Blackwell Companion to Spinoza. Blackwell (forthcoming)
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Abstract
The very first line of Spinoza’s magnum opus, the Ethics, states the following surprising definition: By cause of itself I understand that whose essence involves existence, or that whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing [Per causam sui intelligo id, cujus essentia involvit existentiam, sive id, cujus natura non potest concipi, nisi existens]. As we shall shortly see, for many of Spinoza’s contemporaries and predecessors the very notion of causa sui was utterly absurd, akin to a Baron Munchausen attempting to lift himself above a river by pulling his hair up. How can a thing cause itself into existence, if before the causal activity, the cause did not exist at all? Indeed, in one of his earliest works, Spinoza himself claimed: “No thing, considered in itself, has in itself a cause enabling it to destroy itself (if it exists), or to make itself [te konnen maaken] (if it does not exist)” (KV II 26|I/110/14-16). Moreover, in other early works, Spinoza refers to God as an “uncreated thing” (TIE §97) or “uncreated substance” (CM II 1|I/237/20), and not as a cause-of-itself as in the Ethics. What made Spinoza desert the common, traditional, view of God as the uncaused first cause, or uncreated substance, and adopt instead the apparently chimerical notion of God as causa sui? A very likely explanation for this development suggests that Spinoza’s rationalism, his commitment to the principle that everything must have a reason both for its existence and for its non-existence – a commitment stated clearly both in the Ethics (see, for example, E1p8s2 and E1p11d2), and in Spinoza’s other writings (see, for example, Ep. 34 (IV/179/29)) – made him realize that the notion of an uncreated, or uncaused, thing is of no use for him: if everything must have a cause, then the first cause, or the most fundamental being, must be a cause-of-itself. All this is well and good, but we should not let Spinoza off the hook so easily, for the immediate question which arises now is whether Spinoza is not simply cheating his readers. Does Spinoza have a reason – i.e., argument – that could convince us that causa sui is indeed a more adequate characterization of God and not merely an opportunistic and ad hoc façade for the good old uncaused cause? While there are many important questions surrounding Spinoza’s notion of causa sui, it is the last question which will be the focus of this short chapter. In the first part of this chapter, we study, briefly, Descartes’ engagement with the notion of causa sui. In the second part, I show that Spinoza understood the causation of causa sui as efficient, and not formal, causation. The third and final part will attempt to locate precisely the alleged problem with the notion of causa sui, and consider how could Spinoza defend the intelligibility of this notion. Regrettably, limitations of space will force us to leave the examination of Spinoza’s closely related notion of being-conceived
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