Hegel, Spinoza, and the Reality of the Finite: Acosmism or Weak Individuals?

Yitzhak Y Melamed. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 48, Issue 1. January 2010.

Like many of his contemporaries, Hegel considered Spinoza a modern reviver of ancient Eleatic monism, in which “all determinate content is swallowed up as radically null and void.” This characterization of Spinoza as denying the reality of the world of finite modes had a lasting influence on the perception of Spinoza since Hegel’s time. In this article, I take these claims of Hegel to task and evaluate their validity. Although Hegel’s official argument for the unreality of modes in Spinoza’s system will turn out to be unsound, I do believe there is one crucial line in Spinoza’s system-Spinoza’s rather weak and functional conception of individuality-which provides some support for Hegel’s reading of Spinoza. But in the final account, I will argue, even Spinoza’s weak criterion for individuation does not justify the Hegelian charge of “acosmism.” Hegel was clearly a sympathetic reader of Spinoza, yet it seems that on the issue of the reality of finite things, Hegel’s reading of Spinoza was not sensitive to the nuances of the latter’s position. Hegel used a broad-brush characterization of Spinoza against which he could better present his own view.

Benedict of Elea

Soon after Spinoza’s death, several writers were already suggesting that Spinoza’s philosophy was a revival of ancient Eleatic monism, which rejects the reality of change and diversification. Bayle makes this association quite explicitly in several passages in his dictionary, while Leibniz argues (against Malebranche) that to claim that “all things are only some evanescent or flowing modifications and phantasms, so to speak, of the one permanent divine substance” is to endorse “that doctrine of most evil repute, which a certain subtle and profane writer recently introduced into the world, or revived [pessimae notae doctrinam nuper scriptor quidem subtilis, at profanus, orbi invexit vel renovavit]-that the very nature or substance of all things is God.” There is little doubt that the “subtle but indeed irreligious” writer in question is Spinoza, and it is quite plausible that the revived doctrines are those of the Eleatics.

Almost a century later, with the emergence of German Idealism, the identification of Spinoza with Eleatic monism became the standard view. Hegel, for example, announces:

Parmenides has to reckon with illusion and opinion, the opposites of being and truth; Spinoza likewise, with attributes, modes, extension, movement, understanding, will, and so on.

And Hegel says elsewhere:

Taken as a whole this constitutes the Idea of Spinoza, and it is just what was ‘tò ón’ to the Eleatics [Dies ist im ganzen die Spinozistische Idee. Es ist dasselbe, was bei den Eleaten das ‘ón’] … Spinoza is far from having proved this unity as convincingly as was done by the ancients; but what constitutes the grandeur of Spinoza’s manner of thought is that he is able to renounce all that is determinate and particular, and restrict himself to the One, giving heed to this alone.

A crucial impetus to the propagation of this view was the new understanding of Spinoza as a radical religious thinker, whose position was the complete opposite of atheism. According to this understanding-first suggested by Salomon Maimon in 1792-Spinoza does not deny the reality of God, but rather the reality of the world (“cosmos”) of finite things and diversification.

In Spinoza’s system the unity is real while the diversity is merely ideal. In the atheistic system it is just the other way around. The diversity is real and grounded in the very nature of things, while the unity, which one observes in the order and regularity of nature, is consequently only coincidental; through this unity we determine our arbitrary system for the sake of our knowledge.

It is inconceivable how one could turn the Spinozistic system into atheism since these two systems are the exact opposites of each other. Atheism denies the existence of God, Spinozism denies the existence of the world. Rather, Spinozism should be called ‘acosmism’.

Interestingly, Maimon contrasts Spinoza’s position not only with atheism, but also with Leibniz’s view. The latter is taken to be a mere compromise between Spinozism and atheism, one that asserts the reality of both God and the diversified world. (Doubtless few Leibnizians would be happy to find themselves described as more atheistic than Spinoza.) Maimon’s claims initiated a radical change in the perception of Spinoza and, in the next four decades, we find them echoed time and again. The person who, throughout the eighteenth century, was unquestionably taken as a damned atheist became a “God intoxicated man” in whose system there is “too much God” (zu viel Gott). Hegel’s endorsement of the acosmist interpretation of Spinoza had an enormous and lasting impact on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century perceptions of Spinoza, both on the continent and in England.

In order to identify Spinoza with Eleatic monism, it was necessary to disqualify any element of diversification in Spinoza’s text, and that is precisely what the German Idealists did. The plurality of attributes was taken to be merely subjective, related to the human intellect, and having no true ground in reality. Time, becoming, and change were ruled out (partly because they were allegedly inconsistent with Spinoza’s endorsement of ex nihilo nihil fit), and finally-which is most relevant to our topic-Spinozistic modes were reckoned mere fictions. When we examine Hegel’s reasons for viewing Spinozistic modes as illusory, it seems that the main justification was the following. Hegel repeatedly stresses that, for Spinoza, modes have no independent existence or reality. Clearly this claim is correct. According to Hegel, a crucial aspect of the modes’ dependence on the substance is that in order for modes to be real, their existence must have been derived from the substance (a claim which is equally innocuous). Yet, Hegel argues, Spinoza failed to derive (both the attributes and) the modes from substance. Spinoza simply and arbitrarily states the existence of modes, without ever showing how they are derived from the substance. Following his explanation of Spinoza’s definitions of substance, attribute, and mode, Hegel remarks:

These last three moments [Substance, Attribute, Mode] Spinoza ought not merely to have established in this way as conceptions, he ought to have deduced them.

And a few pages below he states:

Absolute substance, attribute and mode, Spinoza allows to follow one another as definitions, he adopts them ready-made, without the attributes being developed from the substance, or the modes from the attributes.

I have argued elsewhere that in E 1p16d Spinoza takes modes to be God’s propria which follow necessarily from God’s essence. Let me present this issue briefly.

E 1p16: From the necessity of the divine nature there must follow infinitely many things in infinitely many modes (i.e., everything which can fall under an infinite intellect). [Ex necessitate divinae naturae infinita infinitis modis (hoc est, omnia, quae sub intellectum infinitum cadere possunt) sequi debent.]

Dem.: This Proposition must be plain to anyone, provided he attends to the fact that the intellect infers from the given definition of any thing a number of properties [plures proprietates] that really do follow necessarily from it (i.e., from the very essence of the thing); and that it infers more properties the more the definition of the thing expresses reality, i.e., the more reality the essence of the defined thing involves. (Italics mine)

For Spinoza, what follows from the essence or nature of God are the modes (E 1p29s), and in E 1p16d, Spinoza makes clear that the modes follow from God’s essence (or definition) insofar as the modes are the properties (proprietates) that follow from the definition of the thing defined (i.e., in the present case, God). When we compare E 1p16d with Spinoza’s explanation of the nature of and criteria for adequate definitions (TdIE §§95-97; G 2:3429), we learn that in E 1p16d, Spinoza uses the term ‘proprietates’ in the narrow sense of propria, i.e., properties or qualities that follow necessarily from the definition of a thing. This flow of both the essence and existence of modes from God’s essence (E 1p25) clearly is not the dialectical self-negating unfolding by which-Hegel claims-modes should be derived as the opposite moments of substance. Yet if we adopt Hegel’s own criterion for the philosophical refutation of a rival system-“the genuine refutation [of a philosophical system] must penetrate the opponent’s stronghold and meet him on his own ground”-it would seem that Hegel failed to meet Spinoza on the latter’s ground.

According to Hegel,

[T]he only possible refutation of Spinozism must consist in the first place in recognizing its standpoint as essential and necessary, and then going on to raise that standpoint to the higher one through its own immanent dialectic. The relationship of substance considered simply and solely in its own intrinsic nature leads to its opposite, to the Notion [Begriff].

I am not in a position here to provide a comprehensive account of Hegel’s and Spinoza’s disagreement regarding the possibility of self-negation, which, as far as I can see, is the bedrock of all other disagreements between the two philosophers. Such an exposition will take us away from our main issue, but let me provide here at least a cursory account of the issue. As one can see from the passage just cited, Hegel ascribes to Spinoza’s system an “immanent dialectic.” Indeed, Hegel credits Spinoza with the crucial discovery of the importance of negation through the alleged “every determination is negation” doctrine, and he is disappointed by Spinoza’s failure to recognize and employ his own finding. But it is highly unlikely that Spinoza would have much sympathy with Hegel’s self-negating dialectic, insofar as the latter strongly conflicts with the doctrine of the conatus and Spinoza’s insistence that the “definition of any thing affirms and does not deny the thing’s essence” (E 3p4d). Hegel, for his part, pays little if any attention to the doctrine of the conatus throughout his rather extensive discussion of Spinoza’s system. Since, for Hegel, the self-negating dialectic is the main vehicle for the transition from the infinite to the finite, we can now better understand his complaint about the lack of derivation of modes from substance. According to Hegel, Spinoza failed to use his own insight (“determination is negation”) and derive finite or determinate things from infinite substance through dialectical negation. Spinoza, however, would simply reject the Hegelian dialectic, due to its conflict with the pivotal doctrine of the conatus. It therefore seems that Hegel’s complaint about the lack of derivation of modes is unjustified-Spinoza derives modes from the essence of substance as substance’s propria-and that with it falls Hegel’s main justification for viewing modes as unreal entities. Nevertheless, there is another crucial line in Spinoza (of which Hegel was not completely unaware)-his weak and functional view of individuality-which might support the acosmist reading, and it is to this issue that we now turn.

The Weakness of Individuality in Spinoza

In our daily experience we dissect the world we encounter according to what appear to us as natural units, such as chairs, windows, zebras, prime ministers, porcupines, clouds, etc. Similarly, we “dissect” time into years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Although in our daily experience we hardly think of the way we measure and “dissect” time, it is clear that our temporal units are simply arbitrary. A day could have been divided into ten hours, rather than twenty-four, and an hour could have consisted of, say, five hundred and three, rather than sixty, minutes. Indeed, in cultures other than our own (or even in earlier periods of western culture), we can easily find other temporal divisions. Apart from dividing time arbitrarily, we also designate certain periods of time as “special” times, i.e., festivals, birthdays, days of mourning, etc. When one disregards the significance of these dates to the human-centered point of view (as Spinoza would), it appears that all these taxonomies and designations of time are baseless, i.e., they have no true ground in the real nature of time.

Similar problems arise with regard to our way of dissecting space. Our customs, laws, and moral intuitions treat certain regions of space as real units (e.g., cities, states, families, human beings, and cats). Obviously, for us, a human being and a sausage made out of that human being are not the same unit or the same individual (even if precisely the same atoms constituted both). But if we could ask the lion’s opinion, he would probably care little about the fact that the former has self-consciousness, while the latter lacks it. From the lion’s point of view, it may well be that a human being, a corpse, and a human sausage are the same individual. It may as well be that, from this point of view, three and a half human beings and one monkey would together constitute one individual (would not three tomatoes and half an onion constitute one salad for us?).

Where this leads is quite obvious. If reality cannot be dissected in an objective manner, and if any designation of individuals depends upon the interests (and measurement capabilities) of the designator, then it may seem that reality, in itself, is just undifferentiated stuff. From one point of view this stuff is divided in a certain way, from another point of view it is divided in an entirely different way.

In Hegel’s discussion of Spinoza, he frequently accuses Spinoza of rejecting the reality of any diversification, which, for Hegel, amounts to the denial of the reality of the world of finite things. Hence, in the Encyclopedia Logic, Hegel claims that Spinoza’s substance is a “dark shapeless abyss, so to speak, in which all determinate content is swallowed up as radically null and void” (finstere, gestaltlose Abgrund, der allen bestimmen Inhalt als von Haus aus nichtig in sich verschlingt). This last complaint of Hegel’s seems to me justified in part, since, as we shall now see, Spinoza’s criteria for the individuality of finite things are indeed very weak.

A common way to make a non-arbitrary distinction between two things is by showing that the two things are each self-subsisting units, or substances. Obviously, this avenue is not open to Spinoza. God is the only substance, and neither bodies nor minds are substances for Spinoza. Spinoza does, however, use two other terms to designate finite units, singular things (res singulares) and individuals (individua).

Singular things are defined in the seventh definition of part two of the Ethics:

By singular things I understand things that are finite and have a determinate existence. And if a number of Individuals so concur in one action that together they are all [the] cause of one effect, I consider them all, to that extent, as one singular thing [Per res singulares intelligo res, quae finitae sunt et determinatam habent existentiam. Quod si plura individua in una actione ita concurrant, ut omnia simul unius effectus sint causa, eadem omnia eatenus ut unam rem singularem considero]. (Italics mine)

That singular things are the modes we can learn from the identification of the two in E 2p8. The latter text also makes an important point in clarifying that non-existing things constitute singular things as well. But obviously, the most striking point in the definition is its (apparently deliberate) very loose criterion for constituting a singular thing. Let us consider an example.

Suppose Josephine is hesitating as to whether to accept Bonaparte’s marriage proposal. A fly lands on her nose, and consequently she gets annoyed. She calls her mother to ask for advice. Her mother answers and starts preaching (again!). Then, the floor moves, which, after a few minutes of confusion and anxiety, Josephine grasps was just a mild earthquake. A few minutes later she picks up the phone, and tells Bonaparte that she accepts or rejects his proposal. Among the causes of Josephine’s response to Bonaparte, one should include (1) the fly’s presence, (2) the earthquake, and (3) her mother’s preaching. Now, according to E 2d7, the three constitute one and the same singular thing insofar as they “concur in one action that together they are all the cause of one effect.” Neither physical proximity (it may well be that Josephine and the fly were on Saturn and her mother was on Mars) nor belonging to the same kind of thing (presumably the earthquake and the mother’s preaching do not belong to the same category) is necessary in order to constitute a singular thing. But if the fly, the earthquake, and the mother’s preaching constitute a singular thing for Spinoza, then it seems that it is merely a matter of coming up with a matching story in order to show that any aggregate of things, under certain circumstances, could constitute a singular thing. It also seems that an entity can be part of numerous, in fact infinitely many, singular things, “to the extent” that it is taking part in the causation of various things.

The situation is not much better with the other term Spinoza uses to designate finite things: an individual (individuum). Occasionally, Spinoza uses ‘individuum’ in a loose and non-technical sense, but in the Physical Digression following proposition 13 of part two of the Ethics, Spinoza provides an explicit definition for his technical use of this term:

Definition: When a number of bodies, whether of the same or of different size, are so constrained by other bodies that they lie upon one another, or if they so move, whether with the same degree or different degrees of speed, that they communicate their motions to each other in a certain fixed manner, we shall say that those bodies are united with one another and that they all together compose one body or Individual [omnia simul unum corpus, sive individuum componere], which is distinguished from the others by this union of bodies.

In the lemmas following this definition, Spinoza elaborates his theory of individuality. In particular, he attempts to explain the “fixed manner” in which the parts of the individual “communicate their motion to each other.” Lemma four suggests that a part of an individual can be replaced by another part of the same nature “without any change in the form” of the individual, i.e., without the individual’s ceasing to be the same individual. Lemma five suggests that an individual can retain its nature even if its component parts change in size, provided that the parts still keep “the same ratio of motion and rest to each other as before” (ut antea, ad invicem motus et quietis rationem servent). Lemmas six and seven claim that any change in the movement of the individual as a whole does not affect its identity, as long as the internal relation between the parts of the individual are conserved.

Although the definition of an individual identifies it with a body (unum corpus, sive individuum componere), and the ensuing elaboration of this concept in the lemmas treats individuals as composite bodies, it is at least possible that Spinoza’s notion of an individual applies to modes of other attributes as well. This is so primarily because the parallelism among the attributes (E 2p7s) commits him to the existence of parallel composite entities in the other attributes. In fact, in E 2p21s, Spinoza seems to accept explicitly that minds, too, are individuals when he claims that “the Mind and the Body are one and the same Individual, which is conceived now under the attribute of Thought, now under the attribute of Extension.” For the sake of simplicity, however, we will focus our discussion on extended individuals, or bodies.

What is the relation (if any) between the notions of an individual and a singular thing in Spinoza? It is tempting to try to identify the two insofar as both are systems of finite things that are unified by a certain formula. Yet the unifying formulae seem to be quite different. We can easily think of a state of affairs in which a group of things constitute a singular thing, but not an individual. Take, for example, Josephine’s story. We saw that under certain circumstances, her mom’s preaching, the earthquake, and the fly constituted a singular thing, but it seems unlikely that these three are united by a fixed proportion of motion and rest.

When we look carefully at Spinoza’s criteria as to what constitutes an individuum, they seem almost as permissive as the criteria for a singular thing. Prima facie, it seems to allow for one individual to be part of many-probably, infinitely many-other individuals. Take for example the present Queen of England, who is clearly a Spinozistic individual insofar as she has a fixed ratio of motion and rest. Now, when eventually the great revolution comes and the mighty Queen is sent to receive proper re-education in the best schools of Siberia, she might be tied to the current King of France. If the two are tied tightly enough, there seems to be no reason to deny that we have a new royal individual whose parts have a fixed proportion of motion and rest. Yet, the original two individuals do not cease to exist insofar as the original fixed proportions of motion and rest between the parts of each are still intact. Indeed, Spinoza explicitly allows for the possibility of one individual being part of another individual when he suggests that “the whole of nature is one individual, whose parts, that is, all bodies, vary in infinite ways, without any change of the whole individual” (E 2, “Physical Digression,” Lemma 7, demonstration; G 2:102).

Spinoza also seems to allow for scattered (i.e., spatially discontinuous) individuals. In E 4p18s, he says,

For if, for example, two individuals of entirely the same nature are joined to one another, they compose an individual twice as powerful as each one. To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that all should so agree in all things that the Minds and Bodies of all would compose, as it were, one Mind and one Body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together, should seek for themselves the common advantage of all. 

If (1) individuals can have scattered parts and (2) the fact that a certain area of space constitutes a specific individual does not exclude the possibility that the same area (at the same time) is part of infinitely many other individuals, it would seem that Spinoza’s notion of an individual is almost as weak as that of a singular thing. Furthermore, (3) the stipulation that parts of the same individual “communicate their motions to each other” and preserve the same proportion of motion and rest does not tell us how long these parts should preserve the same proportion in order to be counted as genuine individuals. In fact, Spinoza cannot name any particular period of time as such a minimum criterion without resorting to the human-centered perspective. If we disregard the human point of view, there is nothing more natural in a temporal scale that measures things by billions of years, or billionths of a second, than the temporal units we are accustomed to. Hence, even the tiniest period of time in which two bodies communicate their motions in a fixed manner seems to be enough to qualify these two bodies as a genuine individual.

Why Not ‘Acosmism’?

At this point one might wonder whether Hegel was correct in describing Spinoza as an acosmist and in characterizing the state of finite things in Spinoza’s system as being “a dark shapeless abyss … in which all determinate content is swallowed up as radically null and void.” I believe the answer to this question should probably be in the negative, for the following reasons. First, the weakness of individuality in Spinoza might undermine the reality of finite modes, but not that of the infinite modes. But if the infinite modes are real, then substance stops being a shapeless abyss, since at least the distinction between the substance and its infinite modes turns out to be real. Secondly, I have already noted that Spinoza seems to be talking about different degrees to which one thing can be part of another singular thing (see E 2d7). Were the modes illusory, or even were all delineations of individuals equally arbitrary, there would be no point in marking the degrees to which things are truly parts of a certain singular thing. Thirdly, the acosmist reading of Spinoza conflicts with several crucial doctrines of the Ethics. If we accept these doctrines, we will have to re-interpret Spinoza’s claims about metaphysical individuation so that the latter fit the former. The doctrines that I have in mind are the following.

A. Third Kind of Knowledge. The third kind of knowledge “proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes to the adequate knowledge of the essence of things” (E 2p40s2). Spinoza’s discussion of the third kind of knowledge in part five of the Ethics makes clear that it pertains to the knowledge of finite modes-such as our bodies and minds-as well (see, for example, E 5p22 and E 5p31). But if the finite modes are mere illusions, why would they be the objects of the adequate third kind of knowledge? Why does this allegedly illusory knowledge have to follow from an adequate idea of the formal essence of any of the attributes?

B. E 1p16. We have seen that, in E 1p16, Spinoza claims that the modes are just what follow necessarily from God’s nature or essence. Furthermore, E 1p36 (“Nothing exists from whose nature some effect does not follow”) makes clear that everything, including God’s nature, must have some effects. But, if the modes (i.e., the effects of God’s nature) were illusory, then God’s nature would not really have any effects.

C. The Parallelism among the Attributes. In E 2p7s, Spinoza argues that the order and connection of causes in all attributes is the same. This doctrine bluntly contradicts the acosmist reading of Spinoza, insofar as it clearly asserts the existence of a plurality of entities. Simply put, were Spinoza’s substance a singular, undifferentiated entity, it would be pointless to speak of any “order” or “connection” among things, since no plurality would obtain in such a world.

D. Knowledge of God via Knowledge of Finite Nature. In the fourth chapter of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza claims that “we acquire a greater and more perfect knowledge of God as we gain more knowledge of natural things [res naturales]” (G 3:60). Were finite things (“natural things”) merely illusory, it would make little sense that, by engaging with such illusions, we could promote our knowledge of God. Spinoza continues by making the point even more explicit: “To put it another way, since the knowledge of an effect through its cause is nothing other than the knowledge of the property of that cause [causae proprietatem aliquam cognoscere], the greater our knowledge of natural things, the more perfect is our knowledge of God’s essence, which is the cause of all things” (G 3:60). Knowledge of finite things increases our knowledge of God, since these finite things are nothing but God’s properties (or rather, propria), which follow from God’s essence. Clearly, granting such an elevated status to finite things (i.e., being properties of God) is hardly consistent with viewing them as illusions.


In this paper, I have examined Hegel’s characterization of Spinozism as a philosophy that rejects the reality of diversity and the world of finite things. We have seen that Hegel’s official justification for this criticism-the alleged lack of derivation of modes from the substance-is essentially unsound, since Spinoza conceived modes as propria that follow from God’s essence. Spinoza’s weak and functional conception of the delineation of individuals lends some support to the acosmist reading, but several consequences of other central doctrines rule out the view of modes as outright illusions. The essential problem is how to make Spinoza’s weak notion of individuality consistent with the reality of finite modes. A simple-perhaps too simple-solution is to claim that Spinoza’s theory of metaphysical individuation was not fully worked out at the time of Spinoza’s death. One might find some support for this claim in the fact that Spinoza provided two such competing theories (of singular things and of individuals), which might indicate that Spinoza was still experimenting with various ways to cut nature at its joints. Alternatively, it may well be the case that Spinoza intentionally designed the building blocks of his finite world as fuzzy units, in order to stress their inferiority to the self-subsisting, self-explaining, and well-defined substance.

Once we realize that Spinoza did not cast finite things into the abyss of nothingness, the distance between the positions of Spinoza and Hegel is significantly narrowed. They would still have friendly yet deep disagreements on a series of crucial issues, such as the possibility of self-negation, the importance of self-consciousness, and the value of humankind. Hegel regarded Spinoza’s view of the value of human beings as the weightiest and most ominous implication of Spinoza’s alleged acosmism. Responding to those who accuse Spinoza of atheism, Hegel writes:

Those who speak against Spinoza do so as if it were on God’s account that they were interested; but what these opponents are really concerned about is not God, but the finite-themselves … They say: “If God is the identity of mind and nature, then nature or the individual man is God.” This is quite correct, but they forget that nature and the individual disappear in the same identity; and they cannot forgive Spinoza for thus annihilating them.

The annihilation of man, and not the annihilation of God, is the charge one should bring against Spinoza, according to Hegel. I believe Hegel was right to detect a strong anti-humanist tendency in Spinoza’s thought, but consideration of this issue will have to await another occasion.