Melamed argues that (1) for Spinoza, “[p]arts are prior to their whole, both in nature and in our knowledge” (47). But he also claims that (2) a finite mode can’t follow directly from God’s attributes considered absolutely, so it can only follow from God as part of an infinite mode (131). These seem to be in tension, since if it is the infinite mode that follows directly from the absolute nature of God’s attributes, and the finite modes only as parts of that, the infinite mode should be prior in nature. I’m not sure we need to accept either claim.
Let’s start with (1). Melamed points to several places where Spinoza simply states that parts are prior to wholes (47-48). But Spinoza doesn’t elaborate in those passages on what he understands by “part” or “whole” or “prior.” In the Cogitata Metaphysica I/258 (which Melamed cites at 48n145), Spinoza distinguishes among the ways that one thing can be distinct from another, which suggests there might also be a variety of ways that parts can constitute a whole. In fact, when Spinoza claims there that parts must be prior to their whole, it is clear that he is discussing only really distinct parts, and he later denies that the parts of nature are really distinct. I know Melamed has carefully considered Spinoza’s taxonomy of distinctions, so I wonder in light of this in what sense he thinks we can declare that for Spinoza parts are prior to wholes simpliciter.
But let’s just focus on whether the parts are prior to wholes in physical nature, and who better to ask than our friendly expert on Spinozistic mereology, Letter 32’s worm in the blood. Melamed notes that, in that letter, “Spinoza explains, or perhaps defines, the part-whole relation in terms of units that form a holistic system” such that parts “do not constitute a whole for Spinoza unless they mutually interact or adapt themselves to one another” (131). This doesn’t necessarily imply the priority of the whole over the part, although to make sure, we’d like to know exactly what’s going on in this mutual adaptation, which Spinoza says is “controlled by the overall nature of the blood.” However, it becomes clear as the letter goes on that something is itself a whole only to the extent that it is not part of a greater whole. Without, again, committing to a more specific sense of “priority,” it seems to me that if a part is prior to a whole, then its features should be fixed independently of the role it plays in that whole. But if we have to check the whole in which it is involved in order to determine an important feature of it – in this case, the degree to which it is itself a whole – that seems to undermine the claim that the parts of the physical world are prior to wholes in all respects.
I’ve tried to cast some doubt on (1), at least in the case of what we’ve been calling the parts of the physical world (e.g. human sausages). Let’s begin to consider (2) by imagining an alternative picture of how finite modes follow from substance. Spinoza makes clear that a thing’s power to act and persevere in its existence, which follows from its essence, “involves no finite time” (EIIIp7) and no limitation (EIVp4). He takes to follow from this that if everything that happens to a thing followed only from its essence it would be everlasting and infinite (IVp4 and IVp4c). If only a giraffe followed from God, the world would be an eternal and infinite giraffe. Luckily(?) the world we’re actually in is a product of an infinity of such modes limiting one another infinitely. The finite objects of our experience, like the finite and mortal giraffe on the savannah, are what result from this jockeying for ontological resources.
Nothing is finite according to its nature; nothing contains a principle of limitation in itself (contrast Spinoza here with Leibniz, for whom each finite thing, not being limited by other substances, must have its own personal passive principle to limit it). Since finitude is only constituted by this process of mutual limitation, nothing finite follows from the absolute nature of God’s attributes.
It’s possible, then, to account for the finite without making them parts of an infinite mode. Is there reason to prefer this over Melamed’s account? I think the fact that Spinoza says that if the essence of any thing is only confirmed in itself, it would be infinite, means that a finite mode cannot just be a part of an infinite mode.
The idea here is that the things we’ve been calling finite modes, like the actual giraffe on the savannah, are the weak individuals that Melamed discusses in Chapter 2. Each part of nature can be a part of countless individuals, and none of those individuals is complete when we consider it as a part of a greater whole. And for the reasons outlined in considering (1) above, the whole of nature is prior to these parts.
But I submit that these are not really the finite modes, at least as they are understood through their essences, “as they flow from substance.” The giraffe on the savannah has infinitely little in common with any one such essence. In fact, none of the parts of the physical universe is going to correspond to one of those essences. On this picture, the fundamental features of physical nature, or the finite modes of extension as they flow from substance, are the underlying expressions of these essences. What is important to note in conclusion, however, is that their relationship to the whole of nature is not the relationship of parts to a whole. So on this picture, the finite modes of extension do not follow from God as parts of an infinite mode. Rather, they generate the whole of nature through this process of mutual limitation, without thereby constituting parts of it.