Hasdai Crescas and Spinoza on Actual Infinity and the Infinity of God’s Attributes

In Steven Nadler (ed.), Spinoza and Jewish Philosophy. Cambridge University Press. pp. 204-215 (2014)
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The seventeenth century was an important period in the conceptual development of the notion of the infinite. In 1643, Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647)—Galileo’s successor in the chair of mathematics in Florence—communicated his proof of a solid of infinite length but finite volume. Many of the leading metaphysicians of the time, notably Spinoza and Leibniz, came out in defense of actual infinity, rejecting the Aristotelian ban on it, which had been almost universally accepted for two millennia. Though it would be another two centuries before the notion of the actually infinite was rehabilitated in mathematics by Dedekind and Cantor (Cauchy and Weierstrass still considered it mere paradox), their impenitent advocacy of the concept had significant reverberations in both philosophy and mathematics. In this essay, I will attempt to clarify one thread in the development of the notion of the infinite. In the first part, I study Spinoza’s discussion and endorsement, in the Letter on the Infinite (Ep. 12), of Hasdai Crescas’ (c. 1340-1410/11) crucial amendment to a traditional proof of the existence of God (“the cosmological proof” ), in which he insightfully points out that the proof does not require the Aristotelian ban on actual infinity. In the second and last part, I examine the claim, advanced by Crescas and Spinoza, that God has infinitely many attributes, and explore the reasoning that motivated both philosophers to make such a claim. Similarities between Spinoza and Crescas, which suggest the latter’s influence on the former, can be discerned in several other important issues, such as necessitarianism, the view that we are compelled to assert or reject a belief by its representational content, the enigmatic notion of amor Dei intellectualis, and the view of punishment as a natural consequent of sin. Here, I will restrict myself to the issue of the infinite, clearly a substantial topic in itself.
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