The present issue of the Journal for the History of Philosophy (JHP) has a two-tiered debate between Daniel Garber (Princeton) and Michael Della Rocca (Yale) over (i) the status of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) in Spinoza and (ii) the methodology of the history of philosophy. Both (i-ii) are connected to (iii) a more inchoate debate over what philosophy is. That Spinoza and the PSR would be the occasion of such a debate is no surprise; ever since Russell embraced brute facts (and rejected the PSR) and treated Spinoza as an exemplar of non-philosophy (recall), the place of Spinoza within analytical philosophy is not merely a historical question, but also a means at discerning the contested limits of philosophy and an open path toward renewing philosophy. The previous sentence is to side a bit with Della Rocca, who is very clear that "Spinoza’s philosophy can help us to learn or re-learn how to do philosophy in a more productive vein" (533ff) than the analytical status quo. (It is no surprise that much of the most influential Anglo scholarship on Spinoza (from Curley, Bennett, etc.) has been akin to rehabilitation projects in part by reinterpreting Spinoza into fashionable categories and problematics (and to downplay the mystical and therapeutic elements discerned by Russell)).
As an aside, the very same issue of JHP in which the Garber/Della Rocca exchange appears, also has two papers on Kant, one on Aristotle, one on Descartes--all on topics that reflect ongoing debates in scholarship (with undoubtedly fresh and important angles--I know several of the authors and they are all terrific). By contrast, the book-review section includes topics that are a bit more off-the-beaten-track. Obviously the sample size is small (N=1), and Jasper Reid's piece does not fit my claim, but (a quick glance at the other two issues of the present volume also confirm that) the pages of JHP represent a very conservative orientation toward the relevant subject matters of the history of philosophy. This orientation is a key feature of the PGR ecology in the field (recall this post).
The core interpretive issue between Garber and Della Rocca is, at the surface, the status and content of the PSR in Spinoza. (I say "surface" because below it, they agree that rationalism vs empiricism has to be discarded as an organizing principle in the history of philosophy--about that deepy some other time more.) In Della Rocca's hands the PSR is both (i) the master-principle (hereafter MP) and (ii) has a very broad metaphysical scope--Garber denies both that there are any such MPs to be found in the text of Spinoza (and, thus ruling out the PSR's role as a MP) and that in so far as Spinoza embraces commitments akin to the PSR his texts support readings that are thinner in scope than Della Rocca allows. It is worth noting three features of their exchange: (A) that even if Della Rocca's view on (i) are wrong -- say because there is an alternative, perhaps even more fundamental MP, in Spinoza [say, that truth = existence (recall), or truth = being] from which the PSR follows, his reading of (ii) could still be defended. (B) That upon closer inspection, the debate between Garber and Della Rocca over (ii) really turns into a debate over the explanatory resources available to Spinoza in being able to account for the relationship between what follows from the essence/nature of Substance/God and particular infinite series of modes (and the concomitant metaphysical ruling out of some alternative series). (C) That both offer their readings in terms of fairly traditional textual hermeneutics (despite some of their self-presentation).*
On (B) in Garber's hands the problem is that the way God's nature is (and, thus, the way things follow from it) becomes a "brute fact" that violates the PSR. Della Rocca is right, I think, that there is a response to this complaint from within Spinoza's philosophy to be found in E1p33d (and also 1p16, which goes unmentioned by our protagonists, even though Garber (p. 515) quotes a passage in which Spinoza flags its significance for the debate). Della Rocca admits in a footnote that Spinoza's response is not very satisfying philosophically, but does not elaborate. As textual exegesis I am inclined to agree with Della Rocca, but see the next paragraph. (It is to my supervisor's credit that his students do not form a doctrinal or magisterial school.)
The judgment of the previous paragraph is the consequence of my study of Samuel Clarke's (1705) response to Spinoza (in his Demonstration); Clarke's philosophical views on the relationship between God's nature and God's existence puts him very close to Spinoza's position in E1p33 (about which another time more [recall]), but Clarke also noted that E1p33 generates two important tensions with other features of the Ethics. First, Clarke discerned that Spinoza stipulates that the ratio of motion to rest in the universe remains the same, where the universe is taken as an infinite individual that keeps its nature or form (see E2p13L4 and E2p13L7). Keeping this ratio fixed is entirely compatible with variation in the actual motion of the universe. All the same, given that we are dealing with a ratio here, Clarke is right that at any given time there is an intelligible sense in which “there might possibly have been originally more or less motion in the universe than there actually was.” That is, if God's fixed nature is expressed in a fixed ratio, then very same substantial nature is compatible with different motions and this variation violates the PSR. So, Garber has discerned a genuine problem, but misplaces the location.
Second, Clarke (and all the Newtonians) can note that the PSR is too granular (and, again, this echoes the spirit of Garber's objection and, perhaps, explains why Della Rocca has to concede that Spinoza's position isn't so impressive); Spinoza is committed to there being sufficient reason for infinite variety in the modes (E1p16 and E1p28). But Spinoza's metaphysics lacks resources to explain the particular (confused though it may be) characteristics of the variety we observe--here Spinoza inherits some of the problems of Cartesian physics (despite his severe criticisms of Descartes) [for more careful account]; Newtonian physics can help explain observed accelerations and the evolution of (relatively) closed systems of bodies (in terms of abstract quantities) over time. Even if Spinoza is right to express caution about overconfidence here, Newtonian physics did put us on the road to a truer philosophy.
Clearly, Clarke is a hostile critic, and he is reading Spinoza through his engagement with Toland. I would not claim that Clarke gets us (to quote Garber) "the historical Spinoza who lived and worked in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic." (As a historical aside, Spinoza also lived and worked in a the seventeenth-century Dutch Stadhouderschap!) But the proto-reading I have offered here is in some sense more historically grounded than either the one on offer from Della Rocca or, ironically, Garber! For, Della Rocca notes that his interpretation revives a historically important interpretation (associated with Jacobi and British Idealism). As it happens, I have considerable sympathy with that interpretation as a means toward articulating an important, enduring philosophical position (in the way that Garber allows (521)), but the jury is out if it is compatible with seventeenth century views available to Spinoza. (My quick and dirty judgment: no; Spinoza is closer to Averroes and a variety of neo-Platonism!)
One might think that I am being unfair to Garber here because he is very concerned with avoiding terms that are not actor's categories (511ff). But as Dan Schneider has pointed out, when one deploys terms from the past in describing the past, then one is often unwillingly (or unwittingly) siding with one side or another in a past debate. Schneider's observation is important because in philosophy often the key concepts are especially -- if not essentially -- contested. (Recall; see also here.) So, even if we are only trying to understand the past in terms of the actor's intentions (certainly not my program), we have every right, and sometimes a duty if we wish to understand the past, to introduce vocabulary unavailable to the historical actors. As Della Rocca notes, if we wish just to avoid (being a Borges's Pierre Menard and) merely replicate the past in the same words as itself, the business of historians of philosophy starts with going beyond the surface text in some way or another.
While we have made some progress on (i-iii), I have also made some promissory notes (about (A) among other things). So, to be continued...