I’m so happy to be able to comment on Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Substance and Thought, which exemplifies the Melamedian blend of formidable mastery of Spinoza’s corpus and metaphysical insight. I wish I could talk more about the specific things I liked, like Chapter 5’s account of Spinoza’s two parallelisms and the ingenious solutions it provides to a swarm of interpretive problems. But in such a short space, I’ll have to cut to the chase with a confession:
I’ve never liked the infinite modes. Melamed points out that these modes must be important to Spinoza, since he invents them ex nihilo and invokes them at crucial argumentative junctures. But I always feel hoodwinked when he does invoke them, and while Melamed’s treatment of the infinite modes taught me very much about their nature, I’m not sure it supports his conclusion that they go “quite a long way” toward solving the problem of Spinoza’s derivation of the finite from the infinite.
That problem arises because, according to Spinoza, only something infinite can follow directly from the “absolute nature of God’s attributes” (EIp21), which are infinite. But as Melamed shows in Chapter 2, Spinoza does think that there are finite things. So where do they come from? According to Melamed, “once we realize that finite modes are parts of infinite modes, we make significant progress in explaining the derivation of the finite modes: they follow from God’s essence as parts of the infinite modes” (131).
I don’t share his sanguine attitude. Here are a few questions. Most importantly, what does it mean to say that the finite modes “follow from God’s essence as parts”? If parts are prior to wholes for Spinoza, as Melamed argues (47), and the finite modes are parts of the infinite modes, then it would seem that the finite modes should follow from God prior to the infinite modes. This mereological morass will be the topic of my next post. Here I’ll focus on three other questions.
First, as Melamed notes, Spinoza draws a strict distinction between the indivisible kind of infinity that characterizes substance, and the divisible kind that characterizes the infinite modes. But if they are “entirely different,” as Spinoza maintains, what similarity licenses the derivation of one from the other? Or is Spinoza just capitalizing on an equivocation?
I feel the force of this question even more when we consider not the infinity but the eternity of the infinite modes. I think Melamed would agree that Spinoza is also using the infinite modes as a bridge between the eternal and the enduring: just as the fact that they are divisibly infinite is supposed to get us from indivisibly infinite substance to finite things, the fact that they are sempiternal gets us from eternal substance to things that endure. For Spinoza, to say that substance is eternal is to say that its existence follows from essence, a definition that makes no reference to time. What does this kind of eternity have in common with everlasting duration? Even if a variety of finite modes are necessitated by EIp16, why should those modes endure?
Second, according to Melamed, for Spinoza, divisibility is a feature of “modes and only modes” (129). This difference between substance and modes is an important part of what Melamed describes as the fundamental bifurcation in Spinoza’s system between modes (which do not exist through themselves) and substance (which exists through itself) (109). But as Melamed flags in a footnote (129n43), Spinoza also suggests that modes are only understood as divisible when considered in abstraction from substance, through imagination, and we know that, for Spinoza, imagination never gets us adequate knowledge of the essences of things. In fact, Spinoza writes in the Letter on the Infinite that if we attempt to understand modes in terms of divisible quantities, “they too can never be rightly understood.” If this is true, and the finite modes are just parts of the infinite modes as Melamed argues, the finite modes are only conceived through the imagination, which throws us back in danger of acosmism despite Spinoza’s clear desire and systemic need, amply documented by Melamed, to avoid it.
To see a third and final question, let’s look at how the infinite modes are supposed to function in extension, according to Melamed; this will also help set us up for the next post. We start with extended substance, which is indivisible and eternal. The immediate infinite mode of motion and rest modifies extended substance and follows from it. Then, the mediate infinite mode of extension modifies and follows from that. Melamed identifies the mediate infinite mode as the “face of the whole universe” or “the whole of nature,” which is “one individual, whose parts, all bodies, vary in infinite ways, without any change of the whole individual” (E2p13s). Things in the physical world, like human sausages (his example, not mine!), Napoleon, and Josephine, are parts of that individual, which we’ll just call “nature”.
I think the idea here is the Cartesian one that motion generates variety in matter. Now motion should be a mode of whatever thing is in motion, which would seem to be the parts of nature like Josephine or Napoleon, or at least nature as a whole. But on Melamed’s picture, the reverse is true: the mediate infinite mode – nature – is a mode of motion. So what, exactly, is *in* motion? The natural answer would seem to be “extended substance” since that is what motion is supposed to modify. But it is very hard to see how motion has not then introduced genuine parts into extended substance, which is absurd. Even worse, it sounds like while motion is the principle of actual division, the extended substance must already have been divisible before the introduction of motion. Melamed admits that Spinoza leaves many such details unworked-out (136), but I think without addressing problems like these, we cannot conclude that the infinite modes go very far toward solving the problem of the derivation of the finite from the infinite.