In accordance with Spinoza’s plan to metaphysically relate God and humans, Part I of the Ethics deals with God and Part II with the nature and origin of the human mind. It is striking, therefore, that Spinoza cannot prevent himself and the human mind from intruding into Part I. This is what one would expect from a picture that emphasizes the human standpoint, but it confuses a picture that makes God the starting place for a rigorous geometrical ordering of ideas. Let’s look at some examples.
In the Part I definitions, we find the first personal pronoun (1, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8) or appeal to “what is said” (2 and 7). The all-important E1D4, “By attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance as constituting its essence” is, in isolation, most naturally read as asserting that Spinoza’s own intellect, and others like it perceives attributes thus. Most commentators, including Melamed, think that it absolutely crucial that it must instead be the infinite intellect, God’s idea, doing the perceiving. Here I make use of a popular interpretive trope: “surely if Spinoza had meant “infinite intellect” in E1D4 instead of his own intellect, i.e. his capacity for making true ideas clear and distinct, he should have said so. How sloppy of him!” One thing that might support reading this definition as referring to the infinite intellect is that in the similarly all-important E1P16, Spinoza says that everything that can fall under an infinite intellect follows from the necessity of the divine nature. That too, however is rather strange. It is not until later, in Part II, that Spinoza gets around to demonstrating that thought is one of God’s attributes (E2P1) so that God’s idea can be one of his infinite modes (E2P3). The demonstration of E2P1 is enthymematic; it relies on the existence of singular thoughts. But the existence of singular, finite, thoughts can be demonstrated only because Spinoza himself and his readers have some. Spinoza has marked this in E2A1, which formally introduces humans to the scene and E2A2 which asserts simply: “Man thinks.” [the Dutch translation very suggestively adds, “or, to put it differently, we know that we think” (emphasis added)]. It is also worth noting that in E1P16D, that Spinoza again refers to the “intellect” and here he definitely means the human intellect, for he considers how this intellect infers things from definitions—hardly a task appropriate to the infinite intellect. So this is further evidence that the intellect mentioned in E1D4 is human intellect.
If I had more space, I would conclude with some indication of the power of this alternative treatment of the infinite intellect to fit difficult texts and systematize Spinoza’s thought. But first I want to present one example of the internal textual and philosophical difficulties that Melamed’s treatment faces. For now, consider E5P40s.
…it is clear that our Mind, insofar as it understands, it an eternal mode of thinking which is determined by another eternal mode of thinking and this again by another, and so on, to infinity; so that together they all constitute God’s eternal and infinite intellect. (emphasis added)
Now if the infinite intellect (God’s idea) is constituted by our mind (e.g. Spinoza’s own mind) along with the other minds that determine it (recall E1P28 and similar claims elsewhere), then this infinite network of finite minds (sub specie aeternitatus) must contain everything in the infinite intellect. But Melamed (and most other commentators) hold that the infinite intellect explicitly contains an idea for each of the infinitely many attributes. It follows that our minds also contains and can understand an (adequate) idea for each of the infinitely many attributes. There is no infinite intellect “over and above” what is constituted by our finite minds and their finite determinations. But for our minds to contain an idea for each of the attributes contradicts E2A5 (and many other indications) that our minds can know only two attributes. Something has been reduced to absurdity here and the best candidate would seem to be the existence of the “unknown” attributes.
This conclusion cannot be resisted by supposing that the ideas of the other attributes are distributed among the other minds interdetermining “our” minds. These are all causally related to our mind (E1P28) so they are not minds in other ideational facets. Minds in other facets could not determine our minds (E1D2). Moreover, Spinoza’s insisting that it is our minds that constitute the infinite intellect would seem to rule out that it is in virtue of minds-of-other-facets in their own realms that provide the infinite intellect with additional ideas of attributes. Nor will it do to say that E5P40s entails that we have mere propositional knowledge that God has additional attributes. An infinity of minds with this propositional knowledge would not constitute an infinite intellect with emergent, specific ideas of additional attributes.
A possible saving resource for Melamed might be the distinction (that he notes in a different context) between the intellect that is infinite merely in our facet and the intellect that is absolutely infinite in virtue of encompassing all the facets. One might then try to read E5P40S as saying that our minds constitute the intellect that is infinite merely in our own facet while allowing that they do not constitute the absolutely infinite intellect. As Melamed says (p. 204) this device is “quite speculative.” And the device cannot work in just the way that he describes it, “Every infinite intellect perceives only one attribute…” (p. 204). In this context we need for the infinite intellect in our facet to perceive thought and extension.
I conclude with a very specific question for which I hope to have given some motivation. How does a human come to think of an infinite intellect whose structure includes unthinkable attributes? How does focusing one’s imagination on a visual or auditory image of, say E1D6, come to be an adequate idea of something involving what is humanly unthinkable?