Sidebar: The Substance of Substance

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In my last essay, I noted that according to Spinoza God has unlimited (infinite) attributes but human beings are only aware of two of them: thought and extension.

I raised the question of whether anything can be known of Substance aside from these two attributes and someone wrote to me that they were looking forward to reading of my third attribute!

I am not proposing a third attribute, though others have (I’ll touch on why not below). I do want to explore another question about Substance, though, which doesn’t touch on whether any other aspect or attribute of Substance can be known as an object of the mind as thought and extension can (I don't think that is the case).

Instead I want to ask if Substance is self-knowing, not as idea or thought but as simpy knowing being, simply being knowing (to quote a Zen teacher I know), or in other words as self-knowing being.

Can Substance be understood in a way which brings the concept of it into harmony with streams of Vedantic and Buddhist thought which claim, on the basis of the experience of meditators, that awareness is aware of itself and is the true substance of reality?

To affirm so, as I will, is to assert a metaphysical idealist interpretation of Spinoza. I want to stress that one does not have to agree with me- it is quite possible to reject this way of looking at Spinoza while still being immersed in his system of thought and benefitting from it.

I am treating this as a sidebar here because I do not want my metaphysical idealist interpretation of Spinoza to interfere with my general commentary. I may touch on it from time to time there, but for the most part I want to limit myself to what Spinoza himself clearly says.

The Two Attributes

Spinoza’s two attributes are thought and extension. “Thought,” as I understand it, refers to all structures of ideation, or all objects of awareness which confer meaning, content and structure to experience. “Extension” refers to the way that objects of awareness are arrayed in space and interact and change in terms of motion, rest, speed, ratio, etc.

Notice there that I referred to both as “objects of awareness.” There’s the rub: for the concept of “idea” or “thought” to be intelligible, it must be conceived as something arising in consciousness. Similarly, spatiality, or extension, is unintelligible without awareness to experience it. It is completely impossible to think of things moving, changing, speeding up, or existing in any way in space without reference to a consciousness they are relative to, and that understands them as such.

Before we delve more into the idealistic implications of this, let us note that this seems to raise a problem for Spinoza’s system, namely that he never discusses the place of awareness or consciousness itself. I think this is an important oversight- and I also think that once accounted for it powerfully completes Spinoza’s ontology.

Ask yourself this: if Substance is not conscious, how could it form thought or be aware of extension? And if Substance is not self-aware, what could be aware of Substance’s awareness of thought and extension?

Substance must be aware, and it must be self-aware. That awareness itself has an inherent property of self-awareness, though counter-intuitive to our modern materialistic prejudices, is a foundational assertion of many classical Indian and Asian philosophers. If Substance is not self-aware then it must rely on one its attributes (thought? but thought is not aware, it is something we are aware of!) in order to be itself, which does not jive with Spinoza’s foundational assumptions.

Once we grant that Substance is self-aware being we can easily agree that it is aware of thought and extension, and of course aware of its awareness of thought and extension.

Notice, however, what this commits us to. Substance is, by definition, the substance of all things. Therefore all things are made of self-knowing being (which harmonizes well with Spinoza’s panpsychism).

To reiterate my argument, which avoids engaging in the usual (and to my mind valid) arguments for metaphysical idealism: 1) Substance must be self-aware being; 2) Substance is the substance of all things; 3) All things are made of self-aware being.

I want to clarify one possible misunderstanding of my argument: I am not saying that all things contain complex awareness of themselves as beings. That requires an evolved nervous system (as far as we know).

A stone does not, in other words, know it is a stone. What I am arguing is that there is something it is like to be a stone, or that there is a very simple form of awareness permeating the being of a stone- more accurately, forming the being of the stone.

The implications of this argument are fascinating but far too manifold to go into here- for someone who is currently grappling with the problems and implications of metaphysical idealism in a grounded, scientifically informed way, I recommend looking at the work of Bernardo Kastrup, especially the book The Idea of the World.


I do want to briefly note why “self-aware being” is not, in my opinion, an attribute of Substance. The reason is that self-aware being can never be an object of the human mind, and it can not be conceived by the mind, unlike thought and extension.

Therefore self-aware being is not experienced as a quality, aspect, or attribute of something else.

Self-aware being knows itself, it is pure subject, something Ramana Maharshi spent much time trying to point out to his interlocutors. For an excellent articulation of this from a contemporary teacher in that lineage see Rupert Spira.