At the opening of Spinoza’s Ethics, we find the three celebrated definitions of substance, attribute, and God:
E1d3: By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e., that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed [Per substantiam intelligo id quod in se est et per se concipitur; hoc est id cujus conceptus non indiget conceptu alterius rei, a quo formari debeat].
E1d4: By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence [Per attributum intelligo id, quod intellectus de substantia percipit, tanquam ejusdem essentiam constituens].
E1d6: By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence
We are accustomed to think of these paramount definitions as a fixed and settled formulation of the core of Spinoza’s metaphysics, but if we look at the development of Spinoza’s thought, the picture we get is quite different. In the early drafts of the Ethics and in his early works, Spinoza seems to have experimented with various conceptualizations of the relations between substance, attribute, and God. Some of Spinoza’s works make barely any use of the notions of substance and attribute, and the testimony of Spinoza’s letters suggests that, at a certain stage in his philosophical development, the concept of attribute may have been put on the back burner, if not completely dropped. Indeed, another closely related concept—accident [accidens]—was fated to be pulled out of the system (and for good reasons ). The final version of the Ethics makes hardly any use of this notion, but Spinoza’s letters show that in early drafts of the Ethics he used the term ‘accident’ to refer to what cannot be or be conceived without substance. In this paper I will attempt to provide a brief outline of the genealogy of Spinoza’s key metaphysical concepts. This genealogy, like any other, can help us to reexamine and reconsider what seems to us natural, stable and obvious.
In the first part of the paper, I rely on Spinoza’s letters to trace the development of his definitions of substance and attribute in the early drafts of the Ethics. The letters, whose dates are more or less established, also provide a temporal grid for our subsequent discussions. The second part surveys Spinoza’s discussion and conceptualization of substance and attributes in the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, the Theological-Political Treatise (1670), and briefly, Spinoza’s 1663 book on Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy, and its appendix on Metaphysical Thoughts, the Cogitata Metaphysica. The third part of the paper is dedicated to Spinoza’s understanding of substance and attribute in the Short Treatise on God, Man, and His Well-Being. I conclude with some remarks on the stability of Spinoza’s final position on the issue, as expressed in the published version of the Ethics