08 enero, 2015

Philip Goff (ed.). Spinoza on Monism

Sean Winkler

Goff, Philip (ed.). Spinoza and Monism, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 295 pp.

At its inception, Analytic philosophy had always maintained a certain distance from Spinoza. In the sense of method, Spinoza’s systematic rationalism seemed worlds apart from the more positivistic approach of the Analytic thinkers of the early 20th Century. There was, perhaps, no element of Spinoza’s philosophy more responsible for this distance than his radical substance monism. Like the great German mathematician of Spinoza’s day, Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, Analytic thinkers held in suspect Spinoza’s claim that “there must follow infinite things in infinite ways [modis]” from a single substance.(1) Not only did this fly in the face of empirically-grounded scientific method, but it arguably defied simple, common sense. A. J. Ayer’s “Solutions of Outstanding Metaphysical Disputes,” provides an excellent example of the former criticism, prevalent at the time:

The assertion that Reality is One, which it is characteristic of a monist to make and a pluralist to controvert, is nonsensical, since no empirical situation could have any bearing on its truth. (2)

What is more, there is a sense in which certain prejudices about Spinoza and monism were carried over from the days of German Idealism—viz., that monism did not just transform the world of finite things into modes but, rather, it abolished their reality altogether. This is clearly visible in Bertrand Russell’s essay, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” wherein he states:

I share the common-sense belief that there are many separate things; I do not regard the apparent multi-plicity of the world as consisting merely in phases and unreal divisions of a single indivisible Reality. (3)

While Spinoza has come to play a greater role in the development of Analytic thought, these early criticisms continue to hold a powerful sway. Whether from Jonathan Bennett’s critique of the third kind of knowledge, (4) or Donald Davidson’s conclusion that Spinoza may have indirectly shown us that a monist psychology was, in fact, “impossible,” (5) one cannot help but wonder if these are signs of a lingering prejudice against monism.

Philip Goff’s edited volume, Spinoza on Monism, aims to take up this very question, as well as whether or not this prejudice toward Spinoza and monism can, or should be, broken. It is the latest publication from the Palgrave Macmillan series, ‘Philosophers in Depth,’ which is designed to explore major figures in the tradition of Western philosophy by focusing on single, pivotal concepts in their thought. Previously released titles include, for example, ‘Mill on Justice,’ ‘Hegel on Action,’ ‘Sartre on the Body,’ etc., with volumes soon to come such as ‘Plato on Art,’ ‘Aristotle on Aesthetics,’ and ‘James on Religion.’ The controversy surrounding Spinoza’s monism is, indeed, a fitting topic for such a treatment.

The book is divided into two main sections: ‘Monism in Contemporary Metaphysics’ and ‘Monism in Spinoza.’ That the text is so divided seems, at first, a bit puzzling. Spinoza is hardly mentioned in Part I; rather, the essays center around a polemic, starting from Jonathan Schaffer’s “Monism: The Priority of the Whole,” and Terry Horgan and Matjaž Potrč’s “Existence Monism Trumps Priority Monism.” What begins as a debate concerning the viability of different emergent schools in monist thought—between “priority” monism (which holds that finite things are real but preceded by the unity of the cosmos) and “existence” monism (which contends that a discussion of finite things cannot enter into the “right ontology”)—turns into a larger debate over whether the right ontology is fundamentally monist or pluralist, as well as whether monism is more suitable to common sense than Analytic thought has previously afforded. The essays are meticulously argued, however, at the conclusion of this section, one has a strong sense that the debate has ended in a deadlock. Indeed, one wonders if the lines of the debate have been adequately drawn. It is the second part of the text, in which Spinoza’s thought is addressed explicitly, that yields to the suspicion that, perhaps, there is another side to this debate. This is particularly clear in three essays that I will focus on in particular: Mogens Lærke’s “Spinoza’s Monism? What Monism?” Yitzhak Melamed’s “Why Spinoza is not an Eleatic Monist (Or Why Diversity Exists),” and Steven Nadler’s “Spinoza’s Monism and the Reality of the Finite.” (6)

It should be noted that the term “monism” never once appears in the work of Spinoza. In fact, the term does not even arise until some forty-four years after Spinoza’s death, when it appears in Christian Wolff’s Vernünfftige Gedancken von Gott, der Welt und der Seele des Menschen, auch allen Dingen überhaubt (258). This important historical detail is the inspiration for Mogens Lærke’s essay, which raises the question as to whether this label of monism, while economical, has not completely misappropriated Spinoza’s thought. Drawing from the research of Martial Gueroult, Gilles Deleuze, and Pierre Macherey, Lærke points to several passages, not only in the Ethics, but in the Short Treatise, as well as Spinoza’s private letters, which suggest that, if Spinoza understood God to be one, then he meant as much in a very qualified sense, given the tremendous criticisms he levels against the inclusion of number or numerical distinction in metaphysics (245). Lærke admits that his essay is “mainly negative” but it offers considerable insight, not only for Spinoza scholarship, but for the monism debate as well (246). Appropriately, the consequences of such a reading can be observed in the essays contributed by Melamed and Nadler.

Yitzhak Melamed’s primary question in “Why Spinoza is not an Eleatic Monist” is, “Why must God have modes?” (206). As he indicates, the problem does not begin in Analytic thought but, in fact, dates all of the way back to Leibniz and Bayle (210). During the 19th Century, however, Maimon and Hegel offered a controversial solution to this problem by stating that, in fact, finite modes do not exist in Spinoza’s ontology. Once the heretical atheist of the “Pantheism Controversy” during the late 18th Century, Spinoza was now the great denier of the universe, or “acosmist,” as seen in Ancient Greek Eleaticism (210–211). Melamed identifies precisely the source of this reading to a considerable problem in Ip29 of the Ethics, which he calls an “asymmetry” between natura naturans (“the attributes of substance that express eternal and infinite essence”) and natura naturata (“all the modes of God’s attributes insofar as they are considered as things which are in God and can neither be nor be conceived without him”). (7) In this relationship, natura naturata seems entirely superfluous, and, yet, Spinoza’s metaphysics depends on the position that everything follows from substance by absolute necessity. How are both conditions to be satisfied? Melamed addresses several reasons why the acosmist reading is inadequate and offers his own solution instead (210–213). He interprets natura naturans as having an “active nature and that it could not be so unless it had something for it to act upon.” As he states, “[i]n a hypothetical world in which only natura naturans exists, and in which natura naturans is just causing itself, natura naturans would be just as active as it is passive” (213–214). Melamed is not wholly satisfied with his conclusion insofar as he feels that it, then, raises the problem of how divisibility emerges from unified substance. It is here where he asserts that this position, perhaps, can only be rendered coherent if we take up the position that “radical unity and infinity are not only not opposed but perhaps even identical” (215). And while Melamed leaves the consequences of this largely implicit, the fact that an infinite series of finite things follows from that which is simultaneously both radically unified and absolutely infinite points to a vastly different direction worth exploring in the monism debate.

In “Spinoza’s Monism and the Reality of the Finite,” Steven Nadler is interested in a very similar question as Melamed: do finite modes have any “ontological integrity”? Are they “authentic” or merely “illusory” constituents of the “subjective elements of experience”? And, once again, the notion that the reality of finite modes can be defended, he suggests, requires more than asserting them as common-sense “brute facts” but a demonstration of how the existence of finite modes must necessarily follow from substance (232, 223). He begins by introducing the essential elements of Spinoza’s philosophy (substance, attributes, modes), but stresses that such a deduction depends on elements that Spinoza introduces in Ip21–23 of the Ethics, viz., the “immediate infinite modes” and the “mediate infinite modes” (227). Making use of a subtle distinction between the formal and actual durational existence of finite modes as presented in Book II of the Ethics, Nadler devises a novel way of interpreting the more elusive concepts of immediate and mediate infinite modes. Given this distinction between essence and existence, Nadler argues that:

an infinite series of finite modes understood as formal essences makes up an immediate infinite mode under each attribute, while an infinite series of finite modes understood as durationally existing entities makes up a mediate infinite mode under each attribute. (228)

Through a close examination of both the Ethics and Spinoza’s letters to Tschirnhaus and Schuller, Nadler first traces the deduction of finite modes in Extension before doing so with regard to Thought. With regard to Extension, he argues that “since motion and rest need to be the motion and rest of something,” motion and rest are introduced into the attribute to differentiate and, thereby, modify it (232–233). This process results in the production of the “the face of the whole universe [facies totius universi],” (8) of which each finite mode marks a durational thing or event (236). Nadler follows a similar procedure for the deduction of ideas from the idea of God to the totality of ideas of the body, and then to finite ideas. Nadler’s reading here is subtle and offers a clear explication of notoriously difficult Spinozistic concepts while making an interesting foray into a logical deduction of finite modes from a radically infinite, indivisible substance.

Thus, while I would by no means dismiss Part I of this text, Part II—and in particular the essays treated above—is where Spinoza on Monism is most successful. It is here that the nature of the “intra-monism” and “monism-pluralism” debates are brought into question, suggesting that, while they should not be discarded, there was a crucial dimension of this debate that had yet to be considered, thereby promising the reader that further fruitful and exciting research is still to come. Considering the challenging nature of this text and the subject-matter, Spinoza on Monism is best suited for graduate and professorial research, particularly for scholars interested in Spinoza, the history of Analytic philosophy, and, of course, the ongoing debate on the question of monism.


1. Baruch Spinoza, “Ethics,” in Spinoza: Complete Works, ed. Michael Morgan, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002), 227.
2. A. J. Ayer, “Solutions of Outstanding Philosophical Disputes,” in Language, Truth and Logic (London: Penguin Books, 1971), 161.
3. B. Russell, “The Philosophy of Logical Atomism,” in The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (London: Routledge, 2010), 2.
4. Jonathan Bennett, A Study of Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 374.
5. Donald Davidson, “Spinoza’s Causal Theory of the Affects,” in Essays on Actions and Events (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 312.
6. It should be noted that Lærke’s essay comes after Melamed’s and Nadler’s in this volume.
7. Spinoza, “Ethics,” 234.
8. Spinoza, “Letter 64: To the learned and experienced G. H. Schuller, from B.d.S.,” in Spinoza: Complete Works, 919.

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