Spinoza’s Metaphysics of Substance

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 78 (1):17-82 (2008)
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In his groundbreaking work of 1969, Spinoza's Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation, Edwin Curley attacked the traditional understanding of the substance-mode relation in Spinoza, which makes modes inhere in the substance. Curley argued that such an interpretation generates insurmountable problems, as had been already claimed by Pierre Bayle in his famous entry on Spinoza. Instead of having the modes inhere in the substance Curley suggested that the modes’ dependence upon the substance should be interpreted in terms of (efficient) causation, i.e., as committing Spinoza to nothing over and above the claim that the substance is the (efficient) cause of the modes. These bold and fascinating claims generated one of the most important scholarly controversies in Spinoza scholarship of the past thirty-five years. In this chapter I argue against Curley’s interpretation and attempt to reestablish the traditional understanding of Spinozistic modes as inhering in God and as predicated of God. I also criticize Curley’s philosophical motivation for suggesting this interpretation. I do believe, however, that Curley is right about the existence of an intimate connection between the substance-mode relation and causation in Spinoza. In the next chapter I will study the notion of ‘immanent cause’, which merges efficient causality and inherence. I will clarify the relation between immanent, efficient and material causation, and show where precisely Spinoza diverged from the traditional Aristotelian taxonomy of causes. In the second chapter I also discuss the German Idealists’ view of Spinoza as an ‘acosmist’. Under this interpretation Spinoza was a modern reviver of Eleatic monism, who allegedly asserts the mere existence of God, and denies the reality of the world of particular things. Spinozistic modes - according to this reading - are nothing but passing and unreal phenomena. Though this view of Spinoza as an ‘acosmist’ can be supported by some lines in Spinoza’s thought, I believe it should be rejected since it is not consistent with some of the most central doctrines of the Ethics. In the final part of the second chapter I discuss the relation between modes and the attributes under which they fall, and suggest a terminological distinction between a ‘mode of God’ (i.e., a mode under all attributes) and a ‘mode of an attribute’ (i.e., a mode under a specific attribute), a distinction which can help us avoid some common confusions in the treatment of the issue.

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Yitzhak Melamed
Johns Hopkins University


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