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Attribute

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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2016

Alice Sowaal
Affiliation:
San Francisco State University
Lawrence Nolan
Affiliation:
California State University, Long Beach
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Summary

For Descartes, thinking is an attribute of mind, extension is an attribute of body, and God's attributes include absolute infinitude, necessary existence, immutability, eternality, omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence. However, simply listing the attributes of Cartesian substances cannot do justice to Descartes’ theory, which is complex and requires one to grasp the complementary notions of substance and mode. The precise meaning of “attributes” is also in need of careful scrutiny. Descartes sometimes speaks of attributes as modes (and vice versa), while in other places he draws additional, finer distinctions between attributes as kinds of modes, namely as modes of thought (i.e., as ways of thinking about a substance). Overall, the payoff of drawing these delineations is rich, as Descartes’ account of attributes plays a central role in his rationalism, metaphysics, and epistemology; such distinctions are also useful in resolving purported problems with his philosophy.

Descartes distinguishes attributes from modes (both are kinds of affection) and substances (things) (AT VIIIA 22, CSM I 208). Substances are independent: God is the primary substance because he alone is absolutely independent; mind and body are secondary substances because they depend on God, but are independent of each other. All affections depend on God or on things that depend on God (AT VIIIA 22–24, CSM I 208–10).

Though Descartes sometimes collapses the distinction between attributes and modes (AT VIIIA 26, CSM I 211; AT VIIIA 30, CSM I 215; AT IV 349, CSMK 280), the passage in Principles where he assigns the terms “attribute” and “mode” specific meaning are particularly important. Here Descartes holds that whereas the word “mode” is used when we think of a substance as modified, “attribute” is used when we think of a substance as general, that is, as unmodified (unchanging). Given this, Descartes writes that God has attributes but no modes because it is unintelligible to regard God as modified (AT VIIIA 26, CSM I 211).

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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  • Attribute
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.016
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  • Attribute
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.016
Available formats
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Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

  • Attribute
  • Edited by Lawrence Nolan, California State University, Long Beach
  • Book: The Cambridge Descartes Lexicon
  • Online publication: 05 January 2016
  • Chapter DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511894695.016
Available formats
×