It is a great pleasure to accept the invitation to comment on the stimulating book by Yitzhak Melamed, Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Substance and Thought. It presents in a clear and precise way the result of a decade of dense, careful investigations about some of the most difficult themes in Spinoza’s philosophy. During this period, his already original PhD thesis was gradually improved by discussions with some of the best scholars of the history of early modern philosophy. The final product is a solid ensemble of polemical arguments and consistent defenses of interpretations that reinforce the boldness of Spinoza’s thinking and that certainly cannot be ignored by those who intend to undertake a critical study of the metaphysics of the Dutch thinker. Last, but not least, this is a nice opportunity to take up again the philosophical dialogue that we began a few years ago about a topic to which I also dedicated myself and to reassess my own positions about it.
The main purpose of the book is to support a rather innovative interpretation of Spinoza’s metaphysics according to which it proposes a peculiar type of dualism: a dualism between being and thinking. The coextensivity between thinking and existence, however, is not the result of a reduction of existence to conceivability, but of a new view of the nature of existence (viz. of the substance–mode relationship), and of thinking, whose intentionality is thought as possessing an infinitely multifaceted structure.
In order to establish this reading the author goes through a broad range of questions and faces all of them with an equally argumentative vein, which makes any appropriate presentation of his text a very difficult and–in this context certainly impossible–task. Thus, I will limit myself to briefly sketching the strategy of the book, just enough to contextualize the points that I would like to discuss here. Besides, although the critical examination of alternative interpretations is one of the many qualities of the book, the arguments advanced for this purpose will not be considered here.
Y. Melamed builds his interpretation in two steps, each of them dedicated to characterize, respectively, being and thinking. In the former, to which the first four chapters are dedicated, he claims that the substance-mode relationship is irreducibly a relationship of inherence, with its traditional logical counterpart, viz. the relationship of predication, although it is necessarily accompanied by causality and conceivability. As inherence establishes an asymmetrical correlation between the substance and its modifications, he also claims that this asymmetry applies to the two others, yielding the distinctions between types of causality (immanent and transitive) and between types of conception (conceived through and conceived under). Besides clearing up each of these relations and the ways in which they articulate themselves, a last but particularly important task is performed: since his reading depends on the trans-attribute identity of the unity of modes, he discerns the relationship of the modes with the substance from the one they maintain with the attributes which they modify. He then proposes to call ‘aspects’ the modes when they are considered from this second point of view. Finally he advances interesting insights on the question of infinite modes that can only be mentioned here.
After establishing the ontological framework in which thinking should be conceived as an attribute of God, and its ‘aspects’ as modes of God, the two long chapters of the second part are dedicated to provide an appropriate reading of the whole of proposition 7 of the second part of the Ethics, so as to determine that thinking, by its essence–and without ceasing to be one among the infinite attributes of God–is coextensive with the whole nature. As in the first part of the book, all the claims are advocated with argumentative dexterity, extensive knowledge of the texts and of the doctrine, deserving to be assessed thoroughly. However, I will not advance in its presentation, since my interest here is to debate the first part’s main proposal and make a brief critical comment on two of the responses offered to the objections made by Pierre Bayle to Spinoza’s substantial monism.
Y. Melamed aims to assign the most radical meaning to the theory that Spinoza’s unique substance is the subject of inherence (substratum) and the ultimate subject of the predication of the modes–infinite and finite–that necessarily result from it and by which they are conceived. For this purpose he needs to show not only that (a) the concept of Spinoza’s unique substance is compatible with the concepts of substratum and of ultimate subject of predication, but also that (b) his concept of mode matches the requirements of the concepts of quality and property, without rendering ineffective his account of particular things as modes that express the essence of God in a definite and determinate way (E1P25c).
As regards the first step (a), his arguments are very convincing, although he left unanswered a critical question as he did not consider the hypothesis that the dissociation between the concepts of individual and substance implies that Spinoza’s substance may simply be of the wrong logic type to perform the roles of substratum and ultimate subject of predication.
As to the second step, although he is not the first scholar who sustains this view, I am still not convinced and I will list a few doubts concerning Melamed’s arguments.
- He correctly points out that the traditional distinction between thing and property is not entirely adequate to Spinoza’s ontology. Also correctly, he concludes that it is not enough to suppose the plausibility of the notion of particular property just because it is conveyed in the contemporary concept of tropes. However, the justification he proposes seems to be more suitable to the inherence between modes than between modes and substance.
- The demonstration that modes are properties of God requires accounting for the difference between these properties, whose knowledge constitutes the scientia intuitiva, and the common properties, whose notions constitute the second kind of knowledge. I believe that this account would entail some objections to Melamed’s claim that the modes should be predicated to the substance as its qualities or properties.
- Still on the same subject, he does not untangle another of its basic assumptions, for it is not explained in what sense such properties can be considered particular. While the analysis of the weak character of the criteria of individuality and/or singularity is irreprehensible, the examination of the relations between these criteria and the particularity of finite modes is simply absent.
- The thesis that modes are properties of God is complemented in his view by the proposal that they are, therefore, God’s propria, since they are necessary, but not essential qualities. This corollary poses at least two difficulties: (i) this concept is explicitly used by Spinoza to refer to other properties of God, such as his infinitude, and–save for a mistake on my part–never to the modes; (ii) the problems which led to the admission of the concept of propria in the tradition simply do not arise in Spinoza’s philosophy and, if applied to his ontology, would cause a great difficulty. Indeed, the propria were seen as criteria for the discrimination of individual substances when one does not yet know their essences. Not only is this problem no part of the framework of substantial monism, but the usage of these criteria is explicitly denied by Spinoza even before the proof of monism, viz. in the famous demonstration that there cannot be two substances with the same attribute. Now, one of the statements of this proof is precisely that the modes, i.e. the propria according to Melamed, do not supply criteria of discrimination between substances.