The Problem of Individuation

So, you’ll recall the central paradox of Part I of the Ethics: the Creator/Created dichotomy. Natura naturans both is and isn’t distinct from Natura naturata.

It’s weird, but honestly, most people are happy to roll with it. Mostly because Spinoza himself pretty much says: “It is, but it isn’t, and I know — that’s weird.”

The problem comes within Natura naturata.

So Spinoza’s like: “Extension — Spacetime — is one big single thing.”

But then he says a body is a singular, individual, specific thing in Extension.

And so you have all these distinct bodies, which act on each other and knock each other around like billiard balls.

What makes it more complicated is that you have bodies (like ours, specifically), which are composed of singular, individual, specific bodies (cells, molecules, etc.).

So it’s like — wait, if these things are distinct and individual, where are the lines between them? And if there are lines between them, how is everything One? How can our body be considered this one, individual, singular thing if it’s made up of all these distinct, separate things? And how can all of Extension be one singular thing if it’s composed of all these separate bodies?

And you have the same problem with Thought. If there is just one Field of Thought, how are there separate minds?

And, unlike with the N-naturans and N-naturata distinction, Spinoza never really walks this one back. He says “everything is One”, and then says “yes, but it’s divided into these distinct, individual bits”, and the rest of the book works entirely on the second view — like that chain of dominos knocking each other over.

Which is where Leibniz comes in.

In an attempt to give people every possible excuse to lay into me and toss me straight back into the scrap-heap of depression with my tail between my legs, I’m gonna present the following abridged history of Rationalism.

Rationalism is a theory which happened on the European continent and lasted roughly 100 years and involved 3 and a half people.

  • Descartes existed to be wrong and set up Spinoza.
  • Spinoza is God, and therefore exists necessarily.
  • Leibniz exists to plug this one hole in Spinoza.
  • Kant is there to tattle on Spinoza to the teacher and whine that you can’t really know stuff except about how you can’t really know stuff, which you definitely can know — so shut up, Hume.
    And also tattle to the teacher about how Spinoza’s a dirty atheist (because he’s too obsessed with God) who’s corrupting the youth and making everyone evil (by denying there’s such a thing), and why can’t we all go back to believing in a nice God that makes everything make sense like it used to, even though we’re not allowed to believe that it actually makes sense cus that’s too ambitious.

… what does Leibniz say?

The universe is composed of these things called Monads — Singularities, basically — which are totally self-contained and never interact. It’s like the world is a massive room filled with clocks, and the reason they all sync up perfectly is because God set them all up at the same time at The Beginning — but it’s not as if the clocks are coordinating with each other as time goes on.

Also, there’s no time, space, matter, or any substance at all.

It’s been a while since I read Monadology, so I can’t remember if he addresses the point about how all these different monads can have information about each other………..but basically, it’s Indra’s net — this infinite lattice of jewels, each of which contains a reflection of all the other ones.

So, congratulations guys. You’ve solved the problem of individuation. And now you’re even more confused — and God help you if you ever decide to take drugs again, cus this time you’re actually gonna lose it.

…OK, but seriously now.

So long as you can form a clear and distinct picture of the world which will allow you to navigate it, we’re good.

So just think of it like this.

There’s the ocean, right?

And there are currents in the ocean, right?

Those currents can be seen as individual things. But also, there are, very obviously, no distinct lines between them. And yet, one current can shift into another current and alter its course.

And so, Bodies in Extension are just like that.

They are obviously all one thing, like the ocean. But if you’re a navigator on a ship, you can totally distinguish between different currents. People have been doing that for ages. It’s impossible to define precisely, perhaps, but it’s pretty simple to understand.

And if you want to be more precise: Extension is a field which is moving and still at different intervals, and individual bodies are consistent ratios of motion to rest.


I hope so.