I turn now to the comments by Professor Alison Peterman (University of Rochester).
Y.1.6: Alison begins her comments with a genuine confession: “I’ve never liked the infinite modes.” I understand this sensibility, and for a while I was tempted to share it. The infinite modes are probably some of the least understood elements of Spinoza’s ontology. His contemporaries and 18th-century successors barely marked their presence, and when they did, they made trivial and basic errors. Even a sharp mind like Tschirnhaus seems to have had hardly any clue as to how important they were (see Ep. 63). Could it be that the infinite modes are a complete invention of Spinoza scholarship in the late 19th and early 20th century? I do not think so. Spinoza’s reply to Tschirnhaus in Ep. 64, as well as various references to the infinite modes in the Short Treatise and the Ethics, make this suggestion untenable. Still, I believe there are many questions about these entities which have not been adequately answered. My own discussion of the infinite modes (Ch. 4 of the book) was written much later than the rest of the book, because there are many issues related to Spinoza’s mereology which I still find problematic. I noted some of these issues in the footnotes to Chapter 4, and I am still working on a study of Spinoza’s mereology. Nevertheless, since my picture of the infinite modes was very different from the standard account, I thought it would be worth publishing, even though there are several issues I had to leave as open questions.
Y.1.7: The main question at the center of Alison’s first post is: what explains the flow of natura naturata from natura naturans? Why does a cause which is indivisible and eternal produce an effect which is divisible and durational? We might reformulate this question slightly, and ask why modes exist at all, or why God is not merely a self-causing natura naturans. These are all variants of the same deep and foundational question. In my book, I examined and criticized one possible answer to this question, the answer of the acosmist, who claims that the existence of modes (and any plurality) is merely illusory. As far as I can see, the acosmist reading of Spinoza, while charming, contradicts many of the foundational doctrines of Spinoza’s metaphysics (see my Ch. 2, §2), and should thus be rejected.
\I do have an answer to the above question, but I preferred not to include it in the book because of its speculative nature, so I limited myself to referring the reader to an article in which I develop it (see p. 132, n. 48; see the link to this article in Y.1.5 above). I will present this speculative answer here in a concise manner. Let us consider for a moment what would have happened were the effect of natura naturans to have the very same qualities as its cause, but to be distinct from it numerically. In such a case the effect of natura naturans would be a cause of itself (since natura naturans is a causa sui). However, per our premise, the effect is caused by natura naturans, and is not identical with natura naturans, and thus it is caused by another, and not merely self-caused.
Since we have reached a clear contradiction, let us consider a slightly different scenario. What would be the problem if the effect of natura naturans were merely natura naturans itself? In such a case, natura naturans would be causing itself, but not causing natura naturata. Well, what’s wrong with this state of affairs?
Here is my answer: if God were merely cause-of-itself, without having any modes, God would not be active, or more precisely, he would be beyond activity and passivity. The only action obtaining in such a world would have natura naturans as both its agent and its patient. Thus, natura naturans would be just as passive as it is active. “And what is wrong with that?” you might rightly ask. Well, as far as I can tell, Spinoza is strongly committed to the view that God must be active. Here is one text in which he states this strong claim:
E2p3s: [W]e have shown in IP34 that God’s power is nothing except God’s active essence. And so it is as impossible for us to conceive that God does not act as it is to conceive that he does not exist.
The passage above states that for Spinoza a non-active God is a chimera, just like a non-existing God, or a square circle. In order to understand why Spinoza thinks that God must be active, we have to look carefully at E1p34d and E1p16d, and I invite the readers to join me in attempting to fully decipher these two crucial demonstrations.
Before we turn to the next topic, let me remind the reader of a trivial point: the problem we are addressing here does not result from my interpretation; it has bothered virtually all attentive readers of the Ethics (a similar problem – how the first cause, which is simple, causes an effect that is comprised of parts (i.e., our world) – haunted medieval philosophers and theologians from early on).
Y.1.8: I turn now to Alison’s second post. Alison writes: “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.” Alison presses on a crucial problem, which bothered me while writing the infinite modes chapter, and still troubles me while working on Spinoza’s mereology. A simple and precise way of presenting Alison’s objection is to note that, in my account, the infinite mode is a servant (i.e., is posterior/dependent) of two masters: on the one hand (qua mode) it depends on the substance, and on the other (qua whole) it depends on its parts. This does not seem to be a sustainable position. Why hold it then?
As far as I can see, there is strong textual evidence for each of the following three claims: (i) parts are prior to their whole (see pp. 47-48 of my book), (ii) finite modes cannot follow from infinite modes (see E1p22), and (iii) finite modes are parts of the infinite modes (see p. 129, and especially note 42, of my book). Alison seems to accept (ii), but raises important doubts about (i) and (iii). I am sympathetic to this endeavor, though we my still have significant disagreements.
Let us begin with (i). To undermine this claim, we might point out Spinoza’s hesitation in one or two passages about the order of priority between parts and whole. Thus, in the Cogitata Metaphysica (I 5), he says, “component parts are prior in nature at least to the thing composed.” This would seem to imply that Spinoza is not sure whether parts are prior in knowledge to their whole. This approach hardly seems conclusive, though, since we have plenty of late texts in which Spinoza clearly and without hesitation assigns priority – in knowledge and nature – to the parts. A more promising method would be to suggest that there is some kind of whole that is prior to its parts, and that the infinite modes belong to this kind of whole. Alison follows this path, and points out (rightly to my mind) Ep. 32 as the possible source of this distinct sense of ‘whole.’ In this context, Alison’s claim that “something is itself a whole only to the extent that it is not part of a greater whole” is somewhat unclear to me, since the text of the letter makes it clear that one and the same thing (for the example, the blood in one’s body) can be considered both part and whole, depending on one’s perspective (G IV/172). This caveat aside, I share Alison’s desire to document and spell out a genuine sense of a ‘whole’ in Spinoza which is prior to its parts.
With regard to point (iii), I wonder how Alison would respond to the texts in which Spinoza explicitly claims that certain finite modes are parts of infinite modes. Consider, for example, E2p11c: “the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of God.”
More importantly, I have doubts regarding Alison’s claim that “nothing is finite according to its nature; nothing contains a principle of limitation in itself.” Alison is obviously right with regards to the existence of finite things, which is always determined by external causes, but I tend to think that the essence of finite things is not determined by external causes. In TIE §101 Spinoza writes, “The essences of singular, changeable things are not to be drawn from their series, or order of existing, since it offers us nothing but extrinsic denominations, relations, or at most, circumstances, all of which are far from the inmost essence of things” (my italics). One might legitimately point out that TIE §101 is a very early text, which might not attest to Spinoza’s late views; but consider Spinoza’s claim in E1p17s (G II/63/18): “A man is the cause of the existence of another man, not of his essence, for the latter is an eternal truth.” If Alison is right and the essence of finite things is only externally determined, it would seem that finite things, like men, are the causes of the essences of each other. Finally, consider E1p8s2: “the definition of each thing neither involves nor expresses anything except the nature of the thing defined.” Assuming that the limitation relation Alison has in mind is symmetric, it would seem that if A limits B, the definitions/essences of A and B would involve each other, in contrast to Spinoza’ claim in E1p8s2.
Alison is right on target to point out that E4p4d is closely related to this issue, though I suspect she and I might have different understandings of this important and difficult demonstration. Perhaps we could revisit this text in our next round? At any rate, this is all truly illuminating. Many thanks, Alison!