Spinoza’s Appropriation of the Medieval Being-Thing Distinction




Spinoza, Suàrez, Heereboord, being, thing, attribute, substance


From his earliest writings we learn that, for Spinoza, God is not some identifiable thing (res) but is rather the ultimate activity or being (ens) by which all things are identified and differentiated. In this way Spinoza shifts the focus of the meaning of “substance” from being something that has characteristics to the activity whereby all things come to express characteristics. Like Piero Di Vona, I suggest that this ens–res distinction has its origin in Avicenna and is developed by Aquinas, Suárez, and Heereboord. Unlike Di Vona, I argue that Spinoza’s distinction of substance, attribute, and mode parallels Suárez’s distinction between (1) ens–as–noun (τò esse), (2) ens–as–participle, and (3) res, in that for both Suárez and Spinoza, the distinction between ens–as–a–noun and things (res) is intelligible only in terms of ens as the principle by which things are identified. Since that principle is not itself a thing but rather the process by which things are differentiated from one another in virtue of their attributes, I propose that “substance” for Spinoza is best described as the activity by which all that exists comes to be. I conclude that the attempt to provide subjectivist or objectivist interpretations of attributes inevitably misses the point that Spinoza makes in describing God as the source of existence by treating substance as some thing rather than the activity or being (ens) in terms of which all things are intelligible.