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17th Century Theories of Substance

In contemporary, everyday language, the word substance tends to be a generic term used to refer to various kinds of
material stuff (we need to clean this sticky substance off the floor) or as an adjective referring to somethings mass, size,
or importance (that is a substantial bookcase). In 17
century philosophical discussion, however, this terms meaning
is only tangentially related to our everyday use of the term. For 17
century philosophers the term is reserved for the
ultimate constituents of reality on which everything else depends. This article discusses the most important theories of
substance from the 17
century: those of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Although these philosophers were highly
original thinkers, they shared a basic conception of substance inherited from the scholastic-Aristotelian tradition from
which philosophical thinking was emerging. In a general sense each of these theories is a way of working out dual
commitments: a commitment to substance as an ultimate subject and a commitment to the existence of God as a
substance. In spite of these systematic similarities between the theories, they ultimately offer very different accounts of
the nature of substance. Given the foundational role substance plays in the metaphysical schemes of these thinkers, it
will not be surprising to find that these theories of substance underlie dramatically different accounts of the nature and
structure of reality.
Table of Contents
1. 17th Century Theories of Substance: A Shared Background
2. Descartes
a. Descartes Account of Substance
b. What Substances are There?
c. Are Embodied Human Beings Substances?
d. How is Substance Independent?
e. How Many Material Substances?
3. Spinoza
a. Spinozas Account of Substance
b. What Substances are There?
c. Why doesnt Spinoza Countenance Created Substance?
d. How Can a Substance Have More than One Attribute?
e. An Extended and Indivisible Substance?
4. Leibniz
a. Leibnizs Account of Substances
b. What Substances are There?
c. Experience and Reality
d. What is Wrong with Composite Beings?
e. Leibniz and Spinoza
5. 17th Century Theories of Substance in Perspective
6. References and Further Reading
a. Primary Texts in English
b. Secondary Texts
1. 17th Century Theories of Substance: A Shared Background
In thinking about 17
century accounts of substance we need to keep in mind that a concern with substance and its
nature was nothing new to the period. In fact, philosophical thinking about the nature of substance stretches all the way
back to ancient Greece. While the new philosophers of the 17
century were keen to make a break with the past and to
tackle philosophical and scientific problems from new foundations, their views did not develop in an intellectual vacuum.
Indeed, the scholastic-Aristotelian tradition of the day informed their thinking about substance in a number of ways, and
contributed to a number of commonalities in their thought. Before looking at specific theories of substance, it is important
to note four commonalities in particular.
Substance, Mode, Inherence
For the philosophers we will discuss, at the very deepest level the universe contains only two kinds or categories of
entity: substances and modes. Generally speaking, modes are ways that things are; thus shape (for example being a
rectangle), color (for example redness), and size (for example length) are paradigm modes. As a way a thing is, a mode
stands in a special relationship with that of which it is a way. Following a tradition reaching back to Aristotles Categories,
modes are said to exist in, or inhere in, a subject. Similarly, a subject is said to have or bear modes. Thus we might say
that a door is the subject in which the mode of rectangularity inheres. One mode might exist in another mode (a color
might have a particular hue, for example), but ultimately all modes exist in something which is not itself a mode, that is,
in a substance. A substance, then, is an ultimate subject.
Independence and Priority
The new philosophers of the 17
century follow tradition in associating inherence with dependence. They all agree that
the existence of a mode is dependent in a way that the existence of a substance is not. The idea is that modes, as the
ways that things are, depend for their existence on that of which they are modes, e.g. there is no mode of being 80 long
without there being a subject that is 80 long. Put otherwise, the view is that the existence of a mode ultimately requires
or presupposes the existence of a substance. This point is sometimes put by saying that substances, as subjects, are
metaphysically prior to modes.
Degrees of Reality
In contrast to contemporary philosophers, most 17
century philosophers held that reality comes in degreesthat some
things that exist are more or less real than other things that exist. At least part of what dictates a beings reality,
according to these philosophers, is the extent to which its existence is dependent on other things: the less dependent a
thing is on other things for its existence, the more real it is. Given that there are only substances and modes, and that
modes depend on substances for their existence, it follows that substances are the most real constituents of reality.
God Exists and is a Substance
Furthermore, each of the philosophers we will discuss maintains (and offer arguments on behalf of the claim) that
God exists, and that Gods existence is absolutely independent. It is not surprising then, given the above, that each of
these philosophers holds that God is a substance par excellence.
2. Descartes
Descartes philosophical system, including his account of substance was extremely influential during the 17
For more details see the IEP entry Ren Descartes: Overview. Unlike Spinoza and Leibniz, however, Descartes theory
of substance was not the centerpiece of his philosophical system. Nonetheless, Descartes offered a novel theory of
substance which diverged in important ways from the Scholastic-Aristotelian tradition.
a. Descartes Account of Substance
It is sometimes said that Descartes gives two different definitions of substance, and indeed in the Principles and Second
Replies he defines substance in distinct ways. We should not, however, see this as evidence that Descartes changed his
mind. On the contrary, it is clear that for Descartes these definitions express two sides of a unified account of substance.
Let us begin with the definition he offers in his Principles of Philosophy (I.51-52). There he defines substance in terms
of independence. He begins by making clear that there are really two different philosophical senses of the term
(corresponding to two degrees of independence). For reasons that will become clear in a moment, let us distinguish the
two senses by calling one Substance and the other Created Substance. Descartes definitions can be paraphrased as
Substance: A thing whose existence is dependent on no other thing.
Created Substance: A thing whose existence is dependent on nothing other than God.
Strictly speaking, for Descartes there is only one Substance (as opposed to Created Substance), since there is only one
thing whose existence is independent of all other things: God. However, within the universe that God has created there
are entities the existence of which depends only on God. These lesser substances are the ultimate constituents of the
created world.
The definition of substance that Descartes offers in the Second Replies (and elsewhere), ignores the distinction between
God and creation and defines substance in a much more traditional way, claiming that a substance is a subject that has or
bears modes, but is not itself a mode of anything else. This fits right in with his other comments about substance in the
Principles. Thus, he tells us that each created substance has exactly one attribute (Principles I. 53). An attribute of a
substance, Descartes explains, is its principle property which constitutes its nature and essence, and to which all its
other properties are referred (Ibid.). A substances attribute, consequently, dictates its kind since attributes
constitute a substances nature and all and only those things of the same nature are of the same kind. Moreover, in
claiming that all a substances properties are referred through the substances attribute, Descartes is claiming that a
substances attribute dictates the properties that a substance may have.
Descartes specifies two attributes: thought and extension. Consequently, there are at least two kinds of created
substanceextended substances and thinking substances. By extension Descartes just means having length, breadth,
and depth. More colloquially we might say that to be extended is just to take up space or to have volume. Whereas by
thinking substance Descartes just means mind. Although Descartes only ever discusses these two attributes, he never
explicitly rules out the possibility of other attributes. Nevertheless, the tradition has interpreted Descartes as holding
that there are only two kinds of created substance and it is for this reason that Descartes is often called a substance
With this specification in hand we are in a better position to understand what Descartes means when he says that all a
substances properties are referred through the substances attribute or principle property. Consider an extended
substance, say, a particular rock. Among this rocks properties are shape and size; but having these properties
presupposes the property of extension. Put otherwise, something cannot have a shape or a size without also being
extended. Furthermore, the properties that the rock may have are limited to modifications of extensiona rock cannot
have the property of experiencing pain for example, since the property of experiencing pain is not a way of being
extended. In general, we can say that for Descartes i) the attribute of a substance is its most general property, and that
ii) every other property of a substance is merely a specification of, way of being, or mode of that attribute.
b. What Substances are There?
Given this account of the nature of substance, what substances exist? Descartes famously argues in Meditation Six that
human minds and bodies are really distinctthat is, that they are each substances. Indeed, every individual
consciousness or mind is a thinking substance. Furthermore Descartes treats bodies, including the objects of our
everyday experience (chairs, trees, spoons, etc.) as extended substances. This makes sense: extension is an attribute of
substance, so it would seem to follow that anything that is extended (has the attribute of extension) is itself a substance.
Moreover the parts of extended substances, as themselves extended, would seem to be extended substances for
Descartes (see Principles I. 60). Given that Descartes thinks that matter is infinitely divisible (Principles II. 20)that
each part of matter is itself extended all the way downit follows that there are an infinite number of extended
We are thus left with the following picture of reality. The most real thing is God on which all other things depend.
However, within the created realm there are entities that are independent of everything besides God. These are the
created substances. Created substances come in two kindsextended substances and minds, and there is a plurality of
This brief summary of Descartes account of substance raises a number of deeper questions and controversies. One
central question that naturally arises is why Descartes thinks that extension and thought are the most general properties
of substances. For a detailed discussion of Descartes reasons see the IEP entry Ren Descartes: The Mind-Body
Distinction. This entry will briefly consider the role of embodied human beings in Descartes metaphysics, what Descartes
means in calling substances independent, and a related controversy concerning the number of material substances to
which Descartes is entitled.
c. Are Embodied Human Beings Substances?
Embodied human beings fit uneasily into Descartes metaphysics. As embodied, humans are composite beings; an
embodied human being consists of a mental substance (our mind) and a physical one (our body), for Descartes. Descartes
thinks that this composite being is, however, something over and above a mere aggregation. He writes in Mediation Six:
Nature also teaches methat I am not merely present in my body as a sailor is present in a ship, but that I am very
closely joined and, as it were, intermingled with it, so that I and the body form a unit (my italics). In general, it is clear
that Descartes thinks that embodied humans are exceptional beings in some regard, but how we should understand this
mind/body union and its place in Descartes metaphysics has been a matter of some controversy among scholars. One of
the more prominent disputes has been between those scholars who read Descartes as holding that embodied human
beings are a distinct kind of created substance, and those scholars who do not. The former see Descartes as a substance
trialist, whereas the latter read him along traditional lines as a substance dualist. For trialist readings see Hoffman 1986
and Skirry 2005: Chapter 4). For recent defenses of substance dualism against trialist interpretations see Kaufman
2008 and Zaldivar 2011.
d. How is Substance Independent?
As we have seen, Descartes defines substance in terms of independence. This, however, is only a very general claim. In
order to better understand Descartes account of substance we need to have a better idea of the way in which substances
are independent. On one hand, in his thinking about substance Descartes is working with the traditional conception of
independence according to which a substances existence is independent in a way that a modes existence is not, since
substances are ultimate subjects. Accordingly, let us say that substances are subject-independent. On the other hand, in
his account of substance Descartes is also working with a causal sense of independence. After all, the reason that God is
the only Substance (as opposed to Created Substance) is that all other things can exist only with the help of Gods
concurrence (Principles I.51), and Descartes understands this as the causal claim that all other things are Gods creation
and require his continual conservation. Consequently scholars have seen Descartes as holding that in general i) God is
both causally and subjectively independent (God is not, after all, a mode of anything else), ii) created substances are
causally independent of everything but God and subjectively independent, and iii) modes are both causally and
subjectively dependent in that they both depend on Gods continual conservation and on created substances as subjects.
(See for example, Markie 1994: 69; Rodriguez-Pereyra 2008: 79-80)
e. How Many Material Substances?
That created substances are causally independent of everything but God suggests a startling conclusionthat despite
what Descartes seems to say, bodies are not material substances, since they are not sufficiently independent. Bodies are
causally dependent on other bodies in a host of different ways. For example, bodies come to be and are destroyed by
other bodies: a person is the product of their parents and could die as the result of getting hit by a car. Indeed, according
to one scholarly tradition, there is only one material thing that satisfies Descartes definition of created substancethe
material universe as a whole (see for example, Cottingham 1986: 84-85). Again, following tradition we can call this view
the Monist Interpretation, and the opposing view that there are many material substances, the Pluralist Interpretation
(for a distinct view see Woolhouse 1993: 22-23). It would appear, then, that there is philosophical evidence of Monism; in
other words, it would seem that Descartes views about created substance commit him to thinking there can be only one
material substance. Proponents of this interpretation claim that there is textual evidence as well, pointing to a passage in
the Synopsis to the Meditations. There Descartes writes:
[W]e need to recognize that body, taken in the general sense, is a substance, so that it too never perishes. But the
human body, in so far as it differs from other bodies, is simply made up of a certain configuration of limbs and other
accidents of this sort; whereas the human mind is not made up of any accidents in this way, but is a pure substance.
Monists read body, taken in the general sense as referring to the material universe as a whole. Consequently, they see
this passage as claiming that the material universe is a substance, but that the human body is notsince it is made up on
a configuration of limbs and accidents. Assuming the monists are right, two questions immediately arise. First, if bodies
are not substances, then what are they? Monists typically claim that bodies are modes. This makes sense: if bodies are
not substances, they must be modes, given Descartes ontology. Second, if Descartes does not think that bodies are
substances, why does he so often talk as if they are? Monists answer that Descartes is speaking loosely in these contexts
using the term substance in a secondary or derivative sense of the term.
Pluralists have objected on a number of grounds. First, pluralists have challenged the monists textual evidence, offering
alternative readings of the Synopsis. Second, they have challenged the motivation of monism, pointing out that the
monist interpretation requires a very strong conception of causal independence, and that it just isnt clear that this is
Descartes view. Third, pluralists note that although Descartes writes of bodies as substances on numerous occasions, he
never clearly refers to them as modes. Last, pluralists have denied that Descartes could have held that bodies are modes
noting that for Descartes i) parts of things are not modes of them and ii) bodies are parts of the material universe.
Hoffman 1986 briefly raises each of these objections. For more lengthy discussions see Skirry 2005: Chapter 3 and
Slowik 2001.
3. Spinoza
Spinozas most important work is his Ethics Demonstrated in Geometric Orderhenceforth the Ethics. Spinoza worked
on the text throughout the 1660s and 70s. By this time Descartes philosophy had become widely read and indeed
Spinozas thinking was heavily influenced by itincluding his account of substance. Nevertheless, Spinozas account
diverges in important ways and leads to a radically different picture of the world.
a. Spinozas Account of Substance
Spinoza offers a definition of substance on the very first page of the Ethics. He writes: By substance I understand what
is in itself and is conceived through itself (E1d3). Spinoza follows Descartes (and the tradition) in defining substance as
in itself or as an ultimate subject. Correspondingly, he follows the tradition in defining mode as that which is had or
borne by another; as Spinoza puts it a mode is that which is in another (E1d5). For a discussion of the scholastic-
Aristotelian roots of Spinozas definition see Carriero 1995. Spinoza also follows Descartes in thinking that i) attributes
are the principle properties of substance, ii) among those attributes are thought and extension, iii) all other properties of
a substance are referred through, or are ways of being, that attribute, and iv) God exists and is a substance. Here the
agreement ends.
The first obvious divergence from Descartes is found at E1P5. For Descartes there are many extended substances (at
least on the pluralist interpretation) and many minds. Spinoza, however, thinks this is dead wrong. At E1P5 Spinoza
argues that substance is unique in its kindthere can be only one substance per attribute. This fact about substance (in
combination with a number of other metaphysical theses) has far-reaching consequences for his account of substance.
It follows, Spinoza argues at E1P6, that to be a substance is to be causally isolated, on the grounds that i) there is only one
substance per kind or attribute and ii) causal relations can obtain only between things of the same kind. Causal isolation
does not, however, entail causal impotence. An existing substance must have a cause in some sense, but as causally
isolated its cause cannot lie in anything outside itself. Spinoza concludes that substance will be the cause of itselfit
pertains to the nature of a substance to exist (E1P7). Not only is a substance the cause of itself, but Spinoza later tells us
that it is the immanent cause of everything that is in it (E1P18). Spinoza continues, in E1P8, by claiming that every
substance is necessarily infinite. In general Spinoza argues that if there is only one substance per attribute, then
substance cannot be limited since limitation is a causal notion and substances are causally isolated. Last, Spinoza makes
the case that substances are indivisible. He argues in E1P12-13 that if substance were divisible, it would be divisible
either into parts of the same nature or parts of a different nature. If the former, then there would be more than one
substance of the same nature which is ruled out by E1P5. If the latter, then the substance could cease to exist which is
ruled out by E1P7; consequently substance cannot be divided.
b. What Substances are There?
Given this account of the nature of substance, what substances exist? From what has been said so far in the Ethics it
would be reasonable to suppose that, for Spinoza, reality consists of the following substances: God, one extended
substance, one thinking substance, and one substance for every further attribute, should there be any. As it turns out,
however, this is only partially right. It is true that Spinoza ultimately holds that God exists, that there is one extended
substance, and one thinking substance. However, Spinoza denies that these are different substances. The one thinking
substance is numerically identical to the one extended substance which is numerically identical to God. Put otherwise,
there is only one substance, God, and that substance is both extended and thinking.
Spinozas official argument for this conclusion is at E1P14. He argues as follows: God exists (which was proven at E1P11).
Given that God is defined as a being that possesses all the attributes (E1d6) and that there is only one substance per
attribute (E1P5), it follows that God is the only substance. For a detailed discussion of this argument see the IEP entry
Spinoza: Metaphysics.
Given that God is the only substance and Spinozas substance/mode ontology, it follows that the material objects of our
experience are not independently existing substances, but instead are modes of the one extended substance. So too,
minds which Descartes had thought of as thinking substances are, according to Spinoza, modes of the attribute of thought.
We are thus left with the following picture of reality. Like Descartes, Spinoza holds that the most real thing is God on
which all other things depend. However, there are no created substances. God as the one substance has all the
attributes, and consequently is both an extended substance and a thinking one. What Descartes had taken for created
substances are actually modes of God. Nevertheless, Spinoza agrees with Descartes that the contents of reality come in
two kindsmodes of extension and modes of thought, and there is a plurality of both.
This account of the nature of substance yields a very different picture of the metaphysical structure of the world from
Descartes (and from common sense). This entry will focus on three questions in particular: i) why doesnt Spinoza accept
created substances, ii) how can a substance have more than one attribute, and iii) how can a substance be indivisible as
Spinoza suggests?
c. Why doesnt Spinoza Countenance Created Substance?
Spinoza will not countenance Descartes distinction between Substance and Created Substance for a number of reasons.
First, created substances are the causal products of God. However, substances are causally isolated, and so even if there
were multiple substances, one could not be the causal product of the other. Second, as we have seen Descartes holds that
despite their causal dependence on God, finite minds and bodies warrant the name substance at least partially because
such beings are ultimate subjects. Spinoza agrees that being an ultimate subject is an essential part of being a substance;
the problem is that finite bodies and minds are not ultimate subjects. Spinozas official grounds for this thesis are found in
the arguments for E1P4 and 5. In general, Spinoza claims that what is distinctive of substances as ultimate subjects is
that they can be individuated by attribute alone. According to Spinoza there are only two kinds of mark by which entities
might be individuatedby attribute and by mode. Substances as ultimate subjects cannot be individuated by mode,
since subjects are metaphysically prior to modes. Two finite bodies, for example, are not individuated by attribute (since
they are both extended) and so cannot be substances.
d. How Can a Substance Have More than One Attribute?
As weve seen, for Descartes each substance has oneand only oneattribute. Spinozas argument for substance
monism, on the other hand, claims that there is a substance that possesses all the attributes. Spinoza justifies this move
defensively; at E1P10s Spinoza claims that nothing we know about the attributes entails that they must belong to
different substances, and consequently there is nothing illegitimate about claiming that a substance may have more than
one attribute. Although this is Spinozas stated defense, a number of scholars have claimed that Spinoza has the
philosophical resources to make a much stronger argument. Specifically, they claim he has a positive case that, in fact, a
substance possessing anything less than all the attributes (and hence, just one) is impossible. In brief Lin 2007 asks us to
suppose that Spinoza is wrong, and that it is possible for there to be a substance that has fewer than all of the attributes
(but at least one). Spinoza is a strong proponent of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (see for example, E1P8s2) according
to which there is an explanation for every fact. Given the PSR it follows that there is an explanation of why the substance
in question fails to have all the attributes. However, any such explanation will have to appeal to the substances existing
attribute (or attributes). Attributes are conceptually independent however, and consequently one cannot appeal to an
existing attribute to explain the absence of another. For a different but closely related version of this argument see Della
Rocca 2002.
e. An Extended and Indivisible Substance?
Unlike Descartes, Spinoza holds that substance is indivisible, and this raises a number of questions about the consistency
of Spinozas account of substance. For example, how is substances indivisibility consistent with Spinozas claims that (i)
substance has many attributes which constitute its essence and (ii) that substance is extended? For a discussion of i) see
the IEP entry Spinoza: Metaphysics. Here the focus is on ii).
Spinozas extended substance, or God considered under the attribute of extension, is normally understood as
encompassing the whole of extended reality (though for an alternative see Woolhouse 1990). According to a philosophical
tradition going back at least to Platos Phaedo, to be extended or corporeal is to have parts, to be divisible, and hence to
be corruptible. Spinoza, however, holds that it pertains to the nature of substance to exist. Consequently, it would
seem to follow that Spinoza cannot consistently hold that substance is extended. Spinoza was well aware of this argument
and his official rejoinder is found in E1P15s. The problem with the argument is that it is founded only on [the]
supposition that corporeal substance is composed of parts. On its face, this is a confusing claimif extended or corporeal
substance just is the whole of extended reality, it surely has parts. For example, there is the part of extension which
constitutes an individual human body, a part which constitutes the Atlantic Ocean, a part that constitutes Earth, etc.
Despite his wording, Spinoza is not denying that extended substance has parts in every sense of the term. Rather,
Spinoza is especially concerned to counter the idea that his extended substance is a composite substance, built out of
parts which are themselves substances, and into which it might be divided or resolved. This makes sense, since a) it is
not having parts that is the problem, but being corruptible, and b) this account of extended substance as divisible into
further extended substances is just what Descartes (one of the main influences on Spinozas thought) seems to have held.
Spinoza makes his case in two ways in E1P15s. First, Spinoza points us back to the arguments at E1P12 and 13 for the
indivisibility of substance. Second Spinoza offers a new argument that focuses specifically on extended substance, one
that, interestingly, does not presuppose the prior apparatus of the Ethics. In putting aside his own previous conclusions,
Spinozas apparent goal is to show that a view like Descartes according to which any extended substance has parts which
are themselves extended substances, fails on its own terms. In general, he argues as follows. Consider an extended
substance, say a wheel of cheese. If the parts of this wheel are themselves extended substances, then it isat least in
principlepossible for one or more of the parts to be annihilated without any consequence for the other parts. The idea
here is that because substances are independent subjects, the annihilation of one subject cannot have any consequence
for the others. Suppose then that the middle of our wheel of cheese is annihilated; we are thus left with a donut of
cheese. The problem with this is that the hole in the cheese is measurableit has a diameter, a circumference, etc. In
short, it is extended. However, we have supposed that the extended substancethe subject of the extensionin the
middle was destroyed. We are thus left with an instance of attribute, extension, without a substance as its subjectan
impossibility by both Descartes and Spinozas standards. For detailed discussions of this argument see Huenemann 1997
and Robinson 2009.
4. Leibniz
Leibnizs views were informed by the accounts of both Descartes and Spinoza. In fact, Leibniz corresponded with Spinoza
during the early 1670s and briefly visited with Spinoza in 1676. Unlike Spinoza, Leibniz did not write a single
authoritative account of his metaphysical system. Not only that, but his metaphysical views changed in significant ways
over his lifetime. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify a core account of the nature of substance that runs throughout his
middle to later works (from the Discourse on Metaphysics of 1686 through the Monadology of 1714).
a. Leibnizs Account of Substances
Substances are independent and are ultimate subjects.
Like Descartes, Leibniz thinks that God is the only absolutely independent thing, and that there are, in addition, created
substances which are like a world apart, independent of all other things, except for God (Discourse on Metaphysics
8). Second, Leibniz explicitly agrees with Descartes, Spinoza, and the tradition in maintaining that substances are the
ultimate bearers of modes or properties. He writes when several predicates are attributed to a single subject and this
subject is attributed to no others, it is called an individual substance (Ibid.).
Substances are unities.
To be a unity for Leibniz is to be simple and without parts, and so the ultimate constituents of reality are not composite or
aggregative beings. That substances are simple has metaphysically significant consequences; Leibniz infers in the
Principles of Nature and Grace and elsewhere that Since the monads have no parts, they can neither be formed nor
destroyed. They can neither begin nor end naturally, and consequently they last as long as the universe. A being comes
to be naturally only as the result of a composition; an entity is destroyed naturally only through dissolution or corruption.
Thus only composite entities are naturally generable or destructible. Leibniz emphasizes, however, that substances
unity and consequent simplicity is entirely consistent with the possession of and changes in modes or properties.
Substances are active.
To say that a substance is active is to say not only that it is causally efficacious, but that it is the ultimate (created) source
of its own actions. Thus he writes, every substance has a perfect spontaneitythat everything that happens to it is a
consequence of its idea or of its being, and that nothing determines it, except God alone (DM 32). Substances, in some
sense, have their entire history written into their very nature. The history of each substance unfolds successively, each
state causally following from the previous state according to laws. From this it follows that if we had perfect knowledge of
a substances state at a time and of the laws of causal succession, we could foresee the entire life of the substance. As
Leibniz elegantly put the point in the Principles of Nature and Grace the present is pregnant with the future; the future
can be read in the past; the distant is expressed in the proximate.
Substances are causally isolated.
Like Spinoza, Leibniz holds both that substances are causally efficacious, and that their efficacy does not extend to other
substances. In other words, although there is intra-substantial causation (insofar as substances cause their own states),
there is no inter-substantial causation. Leibniz offers a number of different arguments for this claim. On some occasions
he argues that causal isolation follows from the nature of substance. If a state of a substance could be the causal effect of
some other substance, then a substances spontaneity and independence would be compromised. Elsewhere he argues
that inter-substantial causation is itself impossible, claiming that the only way that one substance might cause another is
through the actual transfer of accidents or properties. Thus Leibniz famously writes that substances have no windows
through which something can enter or leave. Accidents cannot be detached, nor can they go about outside of substances
(Monadology 7). For a more detailed discussion of Leibnizs views of causation see the IEP entry Leibniz: Causation.
b. What Substances are There?
Although Leibniz agrees with Descartes that God is an infinite substance which created and conserves the finite world, he
disagrees about the fundamental constituents of this world. For Descartes there are fundamentally two kinds of finite
substancethinking substances or minds and extended substances or bodies. Leibniz disagrees; according to Leibniz
(and this is especially clear in the later works) there are no extended substances. Nothing extended can be a substance
since nothing that is extended is a unity. To be extended is to be actually divided into parts, according to Leibniz, and
consequently to be an aggregate. The ultimate created substances, for Leibniz, are much more like Cartesian thinking
substances, and indeed Leibniz refers to simple substances as minds or souls. This terminology can be confusing, and
it is important to be clear that in using these terms Leibniz is not thereby claiming that all simple substances are
individual human consciousnesses (although human consciousnesses are simple substances for Leibniz). Rather, there is
a whole spectrum of simple substances of which human minds are a particularly sophisticated example.
We are thus left with the following picture of reality. God exists and is responsible for creating and continually conserving
everything else. The ultimate constituents of reality are monads which are indivisible and unextended minds or mind-
like substances. Although monads are causally isolated, they have properties or qualities that continually change, and
these changes are dictated by the monads nature itself. Leibnizs account of substance and his metaphysics in general,
raise a number of questions. This article will take up three in particular. First, Leibnizs account of substance yields (in
conjunction with a number of other metaphysical commitments) a picture of reality that diverges in significant ways both
from common sense and from Descartes and Spinoza. How does our experience of an extended world of causal
interaction fit into Leibnizs metaphysical picture? Second, that substances are unities is a crucial feature of Leibnizs
account, and it is important to consider why Leibniz is so opposed to composite substances. Last, Spinoza and Leibniz
offer very similar accounts of substance, yet end up with very different metaphysical pictures, and so this article will
consider where Leibnizs account diverges from Spinozas.
c. Experience and Reality
How does the world of our experience fit into Leibnizs account of reality? Our everyday experience is of extended
objects causally interacting, but for Leibniz at the fundamental level there is no inter-substantial causation and there are
no extended substances. How, then, is the world of our experience related to the world as it really is?
Let us begin with the apparent causal relations between things. Recall that, for Leibniz, monads are active and
spontaneous. Each individual human mind is a monad, and this means that all of a humans experiencesincluding their
sensations of the worldare the effects of their own previous states. For example, a persons sensation of a books being
on the desk is not caused by the book (or the light bouncing off the book, entering the eye,etc.) but is rather a
progression in the unfolding of the history written into the persons nature. Although a monads life originates from its
nature alone, God has created the world so that the lives of created monads perfectly correspond. Leibniz writes in A
New System of Nature,
God originally created the soul (and any other real unity) in such a way that everything must arise for it from its own
depthsyet with a perfect conformity relative to external thingsThere will be a perfect agreement among all these
substances, producing the same effect that would be noticed if they communicated through the transmission of
species or qualities, as the common philosophers imagine they do.
Thus, when Katie walks around the corner and sees Beatrice, and Beatrice sees Katie, they do so because it was written
into Katies very nature that she would see Beatrice, and into Beatrices nature that she would see Katie. This is Leibnizs
famous doctrine of pre-established harmony. For more see the IEP entry Leibniz: Metaphysics.
How does our experience of an extended world of bodies arise? To start, Leibniz certainly doesnt think that bodies are
built out of, or are composites of, monads. Thus he writes in his Notes on Comments by Michel Angelo Fardella, just as
a point is not a part of a lineso also a soul is not a part of matter. Instead in many cases Leibniz characterizes bodies as
phenomena or appearances. He writes in an oft-cited passage to DeVolder:
[M]atter and motion are not substances or things as much as they are the phenomena of perceivers, the reality of
which is situated in the harmony of the perceivers with themselves (at different times) and with other perceivers.
Leibniz seems to be saying here and elsewhere that bodies are merely appearances (albeit shared appearances) that do
not correspond to any mind-independent reality, and indeed a number of scholars have claimed that this is Leibnizs
considered view (see for example, Loeb 1981: 299-309). In other texts however Leibniz claims that bodies result from,
or are founded in, aggregates of monads, and this suggests that bodies are something over and above the mere
perceptions of monads. In general, scholars have offered interpretations that attempt to accommodate both sets of texts
and which see bodies as being aggregates of monads that are perceived as being extended. There is a great deal of
debate, however, about how such aggregates might ultimately be related to bodies and their perception (for one account
see Rutherford 1995b: 143-153).
d. What is Wrong with Composite Beings?
Leibniz thinks composite beings are excluded as possible substances on a number of grounds. First, no composite is (or
can be) a unity, since according to Leibniz there is no way that two or more entities might be united into a single one. He
famously illustrates this claim by appealing to two diamonds. He writes in his Letters to Arnauld: One could impose the
same collective name for the twoalthough they are far part from one another; but one would not say that these two
diamonds constitute a substanceEven if they were brought nearer together and made to touch, they would not be
substantially united to any greater extent contact, common motion, and participation in a common plan have no effect
on substantial unity. In general, there is no relation that two or more entities might be brought into that would unify
them into a single being.
A second and perhaps even deeper problem with composites is that according to Leibniz they cannot be ultimate subjects.
He writes, again in the Letters to Arnauld, It also seems that what constitutes the essence of a being by aggregation is
only a mode of things of which it is composed. For example, what constitutes the essence of an army is only a mode of the
men who compose it. Leibnizs claim is that no aggregate is a substance because aggregates are modes or states of their
parts, and no mode is an ultimate subject. This leaves us with a question, however: why does Leibniz think that
aggregates are mere modes or states of their parts? In his influential book R.C. Sleigh (1990: 123-124) makes the case
that Leibnizs grounds for thinking aggregates are modes is that aggregates are semantically and ontologically
dispensable. That is, everything that is true of an aggregate can be expressed by attributing various modes to the parts,
all without appealing to the aggregate itself. This tells us that that all of an aggregates purported modes are in fact
modes of the parts, and that consequently the aggregate is not an ultimate subject. Given a substance/mode ontology, it
follows that to the extent that aggregates exist, they must be modes.
e. Leibniz and Spinoza
Although Spinoza and Leibniz offer very different pictures of the structure of reality, their respective accounts of
substance overlap in important ways: both agree that to be a substance is to be at least i) an ultimate subject, ii) causally
isolated but causally efficacious, and iii) indivisible. Indeed, a number of scholars have suggested that Leibniz briefly
adopted or was at least tempted by a Spinozistic metaphysics early in his philosophical career (see for example, the
discussion in Adams 1994: 123-130). Even later in life Leibniz seems to have held Spinozas views in high regard saying
in a Letter to Louis Bourguet that [A]ccording to Spinozathere is only one substance. He would be right if there were
no monads. Given this it is worth considering where Leibniz breaks with Spinoza and why.
Although they differ in a number of important ways, perhaps the most prominent difference between the metaphysics of
Spinoza and Leibniz is that Leibniz holds that reality is split into two: God and creation. God is a substance and He
produces finite substancescreated monads. This signals a break from Spinoza in at least two significant ways. First, it
means that Leibnizs agreement with Spinoza about the causal isolation of substances applies only to created substances;
although for Leibniz God is a substance, He is not causally isolated. Recall that at least one of Leibnizs reasons for
denying inter-substantial causation is that it would require the actual transfer of properties or accidents, and that such a
transfer is impossible. Jolley (2005) makes the case that, for Leibniz, Gods causal activity is of a different kind. God
does not produce effects in a metaphysically intolerable way, and consequently, God need not be causally isolated.
Second, Leibniz holds, in contrast to Spinoza, that created substances are ultimate subjects. Leibniz is very explicit about
his objection to Spinoza on this score. Although he agrees that substances require individuation, he holds that Spinozas
proof at E1P5 that there can be only one substance per nature or attribute is unsound. Furthermore Leibniz holds that
Monads can be individuated, ultimately claiming in the Monadology that Monadsaredifferentiated by the degrees of
their distinct perceptions.
5. 17th Century Theories of Substance in Perspective
Looking back we might see Descartes, but especially Spinoza and Leibniz, as working through the metaphysical
consequences of holding that substances are ultimate subjects. More generally, we can see these theories of substance as
different ways of trying to reconcile the notion of substance as an ultimate subject with a commitment to Gods existence
and independence.
Epistemological considerations led prominent late 17
and 18
century philosophers to abandon such questions, and to
give substance a much more modest position in their metaphysical systems. John Locke, for example, holds that there
are substances and that they are ultimate subjects, but is wary of drawing any further conclusions. As Locke famously
claims, if any one will examine himself concerning his Notion of pure Substance in general, he will find he has no other
Idea of it at all, but only a Supposition of he knows not what support of such Qualitiescommonly called Accidents (EHU
2.23.2). David Hume goes further claiming that it is not within out power to know the ultimate structure of reality, and
that further that our idea of a substance as a subject is merely the result of our imagination: the imagination is apt to
feign something unknown and invisible, which it supposes to continue the same under all these variations; and this
unintelligible something it calls a substance (Treatise 1.4.3). Humean skepticism about substance (and about
metaphysics more generally) survives in one form or another to the present day.
Of course not everyone agrees with this tradition, and the nature of substance has been a question that many
contemporary philosophers have taken upalbeit from different starting points than Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz.
Unlike the 17
century, in contemporary philosophical use the term substance is not necessarily intended to refer to the
ultimate constituents of reality (although it may). Rather the term is usually taken to refer to what are sometimes called
concrete particulars, that is, to individual material things or objects. Furthermore, among contemporary philosophers
there is nothing like the consensus that we find among the 17
century philosophers regarding ontology, dependence,
reality, and God. Thus, it is commonly held that there are categories of reality beyond substance and mode (or
property), perhaps most prominently events or processes. Many philosophers have questioned both the relation of
inherence and the connection between inherence and ontological dependence (bundle-theories of substance, for example,
deny that substances are subjects at allthey are merely bundles or collections of properties). Furthermore, most
contemporary philosophers deny that it makes sense to talk about degrees of reality: things are either real or not. Last,
and perhaps most obviously, contemporary philosophers no longer agree that God exists and is a substance. For a
contemporary effort to offer an account of substance that is in the spirit of 17
century discussions see Hoffman and
Rosenkrantz 1997.
6. References and Further Reading
a. Primary Texts in English
John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny ed. and trans. The Philosophical Writings of
Descartes, 3 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984-1991.
This is the standard English edition of Descartes work.
Edwin Curley, trans. and ed. The Collected Works of Spinoza Vol. 1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
This is the standard English translation.
Roger Ariew and Daniel Garber trans. and ed. G.W. Leibniz: Philosophical Essays. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1989.
This is a great collection of many of Leibniz most important works.
Leroy L. Loemker trans. and ed. Philosophical Papers and Letters 2nd ed. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1969.
This is a much broader collection of Leibnizs work than the Ariew and Garber text.
b. Secondary Texts
Adams, Robert Merrihew. Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
This is one of the most influential books written on Leibniz in recent years. Adams book includes detailed discussions of Leibniz
on modality and identity, the ontological argument, and the place of bodies in Leibnizs mature metaphysics, among other topics.
Carriero, John. On the Relationship Between Mode and Substance in Spinozas Metaphysics, Journal of the History of
Philosophy, vol. 33, no. 2 (1995), pp. 245-273.
In this article Carriero argues that Spinozas account of substance is a traditional one according to which substances are
ultimate subjects.
Cottingham, John. Descartes. New York: Blackwell, 1986.
This is a good introduction to Descartes thought, and raises the question of a trialist interpretation.
Cottingham, John. The Rationalists. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.
This is a clearly written summary and comparison of the philosophies of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. Chapter 3 on
substance is recommended.
Della Rocca, Michael. Spinozas Substance Monism, Spinoza: Metaphysical Themes. Ed. Olli Koistinen and John Biro.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
In this article Della Rocca considers Spinozas official argument that there is only one substance, and defends it from a number of
objectionsincluding the claim that Spinoza is not entitled to hold that substance can have more than one attribute.
Della Rocca, Michael. Spinoza. Routledge: 2008.
This book is an excellent overview of Spinozas life and philosophy; Della Roccas discussion of Spinozas account of substance in
contrast to Descartes is especially good.
Huenemann, Charles. Predicative Interpretations of Spinozas Divine Extension, History of Philosophy Quarterly, vol.
14, no. 1 (1997), pp. 53-76.
In this article Huenemann offers an account of Spinozas extended substance which differs from other influential interpretations
in important ways. In doing so, he takes up the question of the divisibility of substance and Spinozas vacuum argument.
Hoffman, Paul. The Unity of Descartess Man, Philosophical Review, vol. 95, no. 3 (1986), pp. 339-370.
In this often cited article, Hoffman makes the case for a trialist reading of Descartes and along the way offers a number of
criticisms of monist interpretations of substance.
Hoffman, Joshua, and Rosenkrantz, Gary S. Substance: Its Nature and Existence. Routledge, 1997.
In this book Hoffman and Rosenkrantz draw on the ideas of philosophers from the past (including Descartes, Spinoza, and
Leibniz) as well as from contemporary philosophical advancements to develop and defend an account of substance based on
Jolley, Nicholas. Leibniz. Routledge: 2005.
This book is an excellent overview of Leibnizs life and philosophy. The book is written for the non-specialist and would be a
good place for a person with no previous knowledge to start.
Kaufman, Dan. Descartes on Composites, Incomplete Substances, and Kinds of Unity, Archiv fr Geschichte der
Philosophie, vol. 90, no. 1 (2008), pp. 39-73.
In this excellent article Kaufman argues the Descartes is a dualist and that the trialist interpretation espoused by Hoffman (see
above) and others is mistaken.
Lin, Martin. Spinozas Arguments for the Existence of God, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. 75, no. 2
(2007), pp. 269-297.
In this article Lin takes a new look at Spinozas arguments for Gods existence, and attempts to defend Spinoza from the charge
that it is incoherent to think that Gods has more than one (much less, all) the attributes.
Loeb, Louis E. From Descartes to Hume: Continental Metaphysics and the Development of Modern Philosophy.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
This book is one of the standards of the field, and in chapter 2 Loeb offers a comparison of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz on
Markie, Peter. Descartess Concepts of Substance, Reason, Will and Sensation: Studies in Descartess Metaphysics.
Ed. John Cottingham. Oxford: Clarenden Press, 1994.
In this influential article, Markie claims to find not two, but three accounts of substance in Descartes work.
Robinson, Thaddeus S. Spinoza on the Vacuum and the Simplicity of Corporeal Substance, History of Philosophy
Quarterly, vol. 26, no.1 (2009), pp. 63-81.
In this article Robinson offers a novel interpretation of Spinozas vacuum argument, and makes the case that Descartes account
of extended substance, at least by Spinozas lights, is incoherent.
Rodriguez-Pereyra, Gonzalo. Descartess Substance Dualism and His Independence Conception of Substance, Journal
of the History of Philosophy, vol. 46, no. 1(2008), pp. 69-90.
In this article Rodriguez-Pereyra focuses on clarifying the respects in which Descartes substances are independent, and argues
that other prominent features of Descartes account of substance follow from independence so understood.
Rutherford, Donald. Leibniz and the Rational Order of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995a.
Although written for specialists, this influential book is highly readable. Rutherford offers an account of Leibnizs metaphysics
which gives Leibnizs theodicy and especially important role.
Rutherford, Donald. Metaphysics: The Late Period. The Cambridge Companion to Leibniz. Ed. Nicholas Jolley.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995b.
This article is an excellent summary and discussion of Leibnizs metaphysics from 1695s New System of Nature to 1714s
Monadology, and focuses on Leibnizs account of matter during this period.
Skirry, Justin. Descartes and the Metaphysics of Human Nature. New York: Continuum, 2005.
This book traces Descartes scholastic influences and develops a pluralist and trialist interpretation of Descartes account of
Sleigh, R.C. Leibniz and Arnauld: A Commentary on Their Correspondence. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990.
This is an extremely influential book which offers a reading of one of the most important of Leibnizs philosophical exchanges.
Slowik, Edward. Descartes and Individual Corporeal Substance, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, vol. 9
no. 1 (2001) pp. 1-15.
Slowik picks up where Hoffman leaves off, developing several arguments against the monist interpretation of Descartes.
Woolhouse, R.S. Spinoza and Descartes and the Existence of Extended Substance, Central Themes in Early Modern
Philosophy. Ed. J.A. Cover and Mark Kulstad. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1990.
In this article Woolhouse offers a novel reading of Spinozas extended substance, claiming that it refers to an essence as
opposed to an actually existing infinite extension.
Woolhouse, R.S. The Concept of Substance in Seventeenth Century Metaphysics. New York: Routledge, 1993.
This is a good general work on substance during the 17
century. In addition, Woolhouse offers novel readings of Descartes
and Spinoza (see above) on extended substance. This work offers an especially good look at the relations between mechanics,
causation, and substance during the period.
Zaldivar, Eugenio E. Descartess Theory of Substance: Why He Was Not a Trialist, British Journal for the History of
Philosophy, vol. 19, no. 3 (2011), pp. 395-418.
The title says it all. Zaldivar argues against Cottingham, Skirry, and others.
Author Information
Tad Robinson
Email: trobinson@muhlenberg.edu
Mullenburg College
U. S. A.
Last updated: January 9, 2013 | Originally published: January 8, 2013
Article printed from Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: http://www.iep.utm.edu/substanc/
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