books book reviews

Spinoza books


Spinoza's Metaphysics: Substance and Thought
by Yitzhak Y. Melamed

Oxford Univ. Press, 2013 (Paperback 2015)

Reviewed by T. Nelson

T his book is held in high regard by philosophers, and it's easy to understand why. Most of it consists of an analytic discussion of Spinoza's ideas and how they were interpreted and misinterpreted by later commentators.

A prominent example of the latter, according to Yitzhak Melamed, is Edwin Curley, evidently a big cheese in the field, so in the first couple chapters Melamed treads on eggshells while making clear his strong disagreements with many of Curley's conclusions. Other philosophers, including Michael Della Rocca, also derived idiosyncratic interpretations of Spinoza's ideas, which Melamed discusses.

For example, when Spinoza says: “Unaquaeque re, quantum in se est, in suo esse perseverare conatur” (Spinoza wrote in Latin; Google translates this as “Each thing, as much as it is in itself, endeavors to persevere in its own being”)* the meaning seems pretty clear: objects tend to remain as objects. So what is Don Garrett talking about when he says “if an accident is not entirely in the singular thing of which it is predicated, it must then be partly in the other singular things that contribute to its causation”? Arguing that Spinoza is saying finite things can be partly in themselves but not partly in another (p.91) may seem like hair-splitting, but the goal is to be precise about what he was thinking.

In the first two chapters Melamed veers into political correctness. But there is no doubt that he has read virtually everything that has ever been written about Spinoza, and that's a lot. He takes great pains to relate modern ideas about Spinoza to textual points that he actually said. He writes: "for those who seek to test—rather than secure and confirm—their old and well-fortified intuitions, Spinoza is nothing short of a living spring." (p.87)

Finally, in the last two chapters, Melamed gives us his original analysis of Spinoza's metaphysics of thought. He asks: “Does the inter-attributes parallelism rely on the ideas-things parallelism?” (p.147) These arguments about Spinoza's parallelism of substance and thought are interesting to think about, but one could argue they are academic: if God's properties are unknown, perhaps unknowable, and even his existence is in dispute, how can these questions ever be resolved?

But this would be missing the point. Exploring a hypothetical infinite being could lead to many valuable insights. Just as the mathematicians derived many new theorems from thinking about infinite series, without ever worrying about whether infinity really exists, Spinoza's speculations about God are a gold mine of interesting ideas.

jun 18, 2016


* Google translates “Omnia, quae sunt, vel in se, vel in alio sunt” (Whatever is, is either in itself or in another) as “All the things that they are, or in itself, or in something.” Swing and a miss there for Google.

The Ethics (Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata)
Benedict de Spinoza

Translated from the Latin by R. H. M. Elwes

Reviewed by T. Nelson

W hen we get to Spinoza himself, we find a magnificent edifice of philosophy and perhaps some of the most interesting ideas ever to come out of religious thought. Like most religious thinkers, Spinoza's primary idea was that there could be a God who is infinite. Sure, to many of us it's speculative. But if we grant the assumption, what would it mean?

Spinoza's God is unusual. Being infinite, God acts through the intellect alone. He is uncaused and therefore unmoved by the concerns of mortals: “There can be no cause,” he writes, “which, either extrinsically or intrinsically, besides the perfection of his own nature, moves God to act.”

Spinoza used two important terms that are very clearly defined in Ethics: Substance, which is that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing from which is must be formed; and Mode, which is that which is in another through which it is also conceived. Modes are inferred by (i.e. created by) the intellect. One can think of them as finite patterns in an infinite matrix.

Spinoza says the material world consists only of those two things: things that are in themselves and things that are in another person, i.e. representations. All things apart from God are God's modes. Thus the real universe and everything in it are modes or, loosely, accidents or representations.

He also says:

Whether we conceive nature under the attribute of Extension, or under the attribute of Thought, or under any other attribute, we shall find one and the same order, or one and the same connection of causes.

God, says Spinoza, has infinitely many attributes, of which humans can understand only a few. Yet the same underlying order is in all of them. This is Spinoza's justification for how a finite being can presume to reason about an infinite one.

Or is it? He goes on to say this:

Whatsoever can be perceived by the infinite intellect as constituting the essence of substance, belongs altogether only to one substance: consequently, substance thinking and substance extended are one and the same substance, comprehended now through one attribute, now through the other. So, also, a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, though expressed in two ways.

A plausible interpretation might be that thought and reality, or reality and representation, are not just similar, but the same, just viewed from different viewpoints.

To Spinoza God is a thinking being; things cannot be conceived without God.

An idea is the first element constituting the human mind. It must be the idea of something actually existing, but not of an infinite thing .... Hence it follows, that the human mind is part of the infinite intellect of god .... God is displayed through the nature of the human mind ... and constitutes the essence of the human mind. (prop. xi, corollary)

Proposition xv: Whatever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived.

Does he mean that humans are part of God, or simply that God created everything? Here again he seems to be maddeningly and purposely vague, perhaps for fear of alienating his readers. And well he might have been. Here was one philosopher who did expect the Spanish Inquisition: his ancestors fled to Portugal to escape it, and then to Holland, where he got excommunicated by Jewish leaders for heresy in 1656 at the age of 24.

Spinoza was heavily influenced by Descartes and even Isaac Newton, who was eleven years younger than he was. His master work, Ethics, is in five parts:

Spinoza is highly readable: his book is in the form of propositions, corollaries, and short proofs. He provides several proofs of God's existence, starting from axioms like:

Spinoza says there are no contingent things, because it would imply that God could have created the universe differently than he did. Therefore God does not have free will. And neither do humans:

The mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause, which has also been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on to infinity.

It is a perfect Newtonian clockwork universe.

He also reasons that infinity cannot be divided, and therefore since God is infinite, there can only be one God.

In his appendix he says that nature has no particular goal in view, and the final causes are mere human figments. Example: if a stone falls from a roof and kills somebody, believers in final causes will say it is God's will. But this is superstition, says Spinoza, which ultimately takes refuge in the will of God, that is, the sanctuary of ignorance. From this, people reason that God strives to create specific effects which God created for their sake so humans could worship him. This leads to asking why there are imperfections and evil in the world.

Thus, for Spinoza, the question of whether the world could be different than it is is meaningless. Good and evil are human concepts, mere modes of imagining, and are not real. He writes: “Things are not more or less perfect, according as they are serviceable or repugnant to mankind.”

Spinoza's ideas are not quite pantheism, but rather a logically consistent conception of what an infinite being must be. More than that, Spinoza's courageous ideas are a bridge between traditional religion and the vast universe that our civilization was discovering.

Spinoza's motto was ‘be cautious’ (caute), even rejecting a professorship from the University of Heidelberg to preserve his academic freedom. His excommunication still stands, and to this day some blame him for secularizing and politicizing Judaism. Others say he provided the Church with new armor to protect itself against the new physics. Carlos Fraenkel, in Philosophical Religions from Plato to Spinoza, wrote that Spinoza was primarily concerned with philosophically reinterpreting Christianity.

In my view, Spinoza's real contribution was to introduce a division between theology and philosophy.[1] In Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (Theological-Political Treatise; TTP for short) he wrote that one of his goals was “to free our minds from the prejudices of theologians and avoid the hasty acceptance of human fabrications as divine teachings”.[2] Maybe that was why the ideas of this fiercely independent thinker were, and continue to be, so threatening.

jun 18, 2016; updated jun 19, 2016


1. In fact he explicitly states that this is his main purpose in the last paragraph of Chapter 2 in TTP.

2. M.L. Morgan, Spinoza Complete Works, p. 457. In TTP Spinoza also says he would prefer that people not read his book rather than make themselves a nuisance by misinterpreting it after their wont. It would no doubt be gratifying for him to know that so many have followed his advice.