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Thanks again to everyone who participated in the recent discussion of Spinoza’s Metaphysics: Substance and Thought. Anyone who wants to catch up on the discussion can do so via this post, which links to all the comment and reply posts.

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Alan Nelson’s posts are generous and penetrating, as always. I am very much flattered to read his warm reception of the book. Needless to say, we have been discussing many of the ideas in the book for quite a few years now, and thus I feel vindicated to read his impressions of the final product.

Y.1.9: Many of the joyful and useful disagreements between Alan and me over the years have concentrated in one way or another on Spinoza’s relation to Descartes. Unlike Alan, and many other top scholars of modern philosophy, I tend to see Spinoza as essentially anti-Cartesian. I will not delve into this important issue here, though I imagine that the reader may have discerned my distinct view in this regard.

Y.1.10 In a very gentle and mild rebuke, Alan notes: “I suspect, however that Melamed’s overall interpretation does not provide a sufficient basis for giving due weight to the human standpoint. ” I completely agree with this claim in at least two senses (i.e., at least one sense more than Alan’s original point). First, the focus of the book is indeed not on the human standpoint. Spinoza has much to say about this issue, and I believe I have quite a bit to say about what Spinoza has to say, but this is not indeed the focus of the book. Let me note that much of what Spinoza has to say about the human standpoint is expressed throughout Part II of the Ethics, in what I take to be a systematic attack on the Cartesian point of view.

Second, I think Alan is right to say that Spinoza does not consider man as “the measure of all things.” Indeed, Hegel would enthusiastically endorse the claim that Spinoza failed to give the human standpoint its due place. In fact, I would say that this is one of the best ways to state one of the most fundamental -disagreements between Hegel and Spinoza (the other main point of contention between the two is the (related) issue of self-negation).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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