I’m glad of this opportunity to express my admiration for Melamed’s exceptionally good book. Very few books on any early modern figure reach this standard. It addresses most of the hardest problems facing interpreters of Spinoza’s mature masterpiece, the Ethics, and it constructs a systematic reading from which direct answers to these problems naturally fall out. This systematicity is just what is wanted from a reading of a philosopher like Spinoza, more perhaps than for any other philosopher, but it is notoriously hard to attain. The book is densely argued in an analytic style that features interpretive hypotheses and the weighing of texts as confirming evidence. The focus is on the Ethics and closely related letters, but Melamed makes skillful use of the rest of the corpus when appropriate. He also builds on hundreds of years of scholarship while adding important innovations and synthesizing it all. The book remains free of philosophical anachronism to an unusual extent and, as a bonus, it is readable throughout. OUP has done a good job as well: the copious notes are at the foot of the page, and there is a separate bibliography and a useful index of passages from the Ethics.
In this brief commentary, there is no space to develop direct objections to Melamed’s interpretation. He has himself done a highly admirable job of anticipating and dealing with objections. That includes the recognition of potentially unfriendly texts, almost all of which are fit into the overall interpretation. Instead, I shall try to suggest an alternative framework for understanding Spinoza’s metaphysics from which questions for Melamed’s interpretation might be raised. This can serve as an invitation for extending the argument of the book (a task which is already underway in other manuscripts and published articles). For now, I will try to put some pressure on Melamed’s interpretation of the infinite intellect, or God’s idea, and its relation to the attributes. Although the book is superbly integrated, this aspect of Spinoza’s metaphysics is its core.
Melamed lays out some convincing textual and philosophical arguments for rejecting a reductionist, absolute idealist interpretation that makes finite modes, including humans, nonentities. I suspect, however that Melamed’s overall interpretation does not provide a sufficient basis for giving due weight to the human standpoint. Ultimately, I think that human intellect, the human mind insofar as it attains adequate ideas, must play a more central role. This is not to say that Melamed focuses too much on the first two parts of the Ethics—reviewers typically complain that excellent books should be longer. And, I hasten to add that it would be wrong to regard Spinoza’s metaphysics as a half-hearted theoretical prop for an agenda of political activism or even for his theoretical politics. It would also be wrong to see Spinoza as a kind of subjective idealist for whom God is a theoretical posit that is ontologically or even (in one sense) epistemically posterior to the human mind.
Let us grant Spinoza’s theory of the metaphysics of a human being. What I am calling the human standpoint depends on what can be thought or cognized by such a human. It is frequently noted that the metaphysics of the Ethics is in service of ethics; the presumptive point of the book is for Spinoza’s readers to approach a state of blessedness as nearly as they can. This introduces a constraint to which a fully successful interpretation of Spinoza’s metaphysics (or any traditional metaphysics, for that matter) must conform. A metaphysics must account for how it is possible that it be represented in human thought and human language. When undergraduates read the Ethics, they often ask a Nietzschean question about whether Spinoza himself achieved blessedness, intellectual love of God, and made the greater part of his mind eternal. It is a good question. If the answer is negative, it does not seem that Spinoza’s aim in writing the Ethics could have been to impart metaphysical truths to his readers. Why should they believe what they read unless the exercise forthwith produces blessedness in those who try it (and who better to try it than Spinoza himself)? Let us assume that Spinoza did intend the Ethics to convey metaphysical truths to his readers and that he was not (only) engaged in extremely subtle theological-political polemics in that book. This must mean that he cognized the truths himself with a high degree of “clarity and distinctness.”
According to the Ethics this means that Spinoza had accurately associated the assertory Latin sentences in the book with the appropriate adequate ideas in his own mind. And here I want to emphasize that it is not enough that these ideas, the idea of God for example, be adequately in the minds of all in the sense of E2P47 and its scholium. These ideas are innate and available for clear and distinct cognition, but they are almost always confused by imagination. Spinoza, therefore, must mean for the Ethics to mitigate these confusions in his readers thereby making their adequate ideas sufficiently clear and distinct. Doing this requires some psychological exercise like fixing the attention on axioms and cognizing their connection to God’s nature (TTP, Chapter 6 supplement), which seems to be the strategy of the Ethics. And it must not be forgotten that Spinoza must make use of the readers’ (and his own) imagination to use a natural language to express non-imaginary, clear and distinct ideas. Now, God must be prior both in being and in knowledge, so the job of attaining blessedness is not fully underway until one can make clear and distinct one’s adequate ideas of God, i.e. ideas of his essences. The question for Melamed’s interpretation, then, is whether it can describe the metaphysics of the relationship between the Latin inscriptions in a copy of the Ethics and human cognition of the attributes and infinite intellect.