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05/31/2022

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JVC

Dear Eric,

Some free thoughts on your super interesting piece.

Note 1:

ES: “in the letter to Hudde [1666], from the exactitude requirement in [A] Spinoza infers the requirement/demand [B]. And [B] seems to demand that the cause X of some entity (or number of entities) Y also explains the omissions of possible entities (Yn) such that only Y. […] later, in the Ethics, Spinoza articulates an even stronger version of this principle: “For each thing there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for its existence and for its nonexistence”. (E1p11dem). And so it looks like [B] anticipates some such demand for providing causes of nonexistence(s).”

Perhaps we might already find a version of [B] also in the Short Treatise [ca. 1662-63]. It’s part of a rather technical discussion; I omit the details here, and just give the relevant passage:

“As for the second, if that cause were not more determined to produce the one rather than the other, i.e., either to produce this something, or to omit producing it, then it would at the same time be impossible both that it should produce it and that it should omit producing it. This is an outright contradiction.” (Spinoza, KV, I, Ch. 6, p. 86 in Curley Vol. I)

Here too Spinoza seems to be saying that there must always be a reason why a cause is determined to produce the one rather than the other.

So I would propose this as a rebuttal of your claim that: ”crucially, then, compared to the Short Treatise and the Cartesian Principles of philosophy, in the letter to Hudde, Spinoza starts packing quite a bit more into what counts as a proper causal explanation of things existing in nature and so also starts developing a heavier duty version of the PSR to be used in explanations of nature.”

Note 2:
Hudde: how do we get from God as ‘a necessary existing being’ to ‘God as a singular necessary existing being’?
Spinoza: we necessarily infer God’s Unity from the nature of his existence; this is self-evident for those who properly meditate

However, this is far from evident, ES explains: “For […] it is not obvious how one can even begin to rule out multiple Gods. (I am not suggesting that Spinoza has successfully done so here. Clearly some folk think even the Ethics version fails.) This is especially so if one thinks, not implausibly, that the cause of (a) God can itself be not limited in particular ways (since it it is powerful enough to cause God and neither involves any multiplicity or any definite number of individuals).”

To be honest, I find this very difficult to understand. How can I have the idea of multiple necessary existing beings? That seems logically impossible right?

Regardless, I was wondering: isn’t it so that this abovementioned refutation [viz. ‘the idea that the cause of God itself cannot be limited’, and therefore that we cannot exclude multiple productions of ‘Gods’- or something like that] only makes sense if one considers Spinoza’s particular conception of the substance-attribute relation in the Short Treatise? As many have noticed, Spinoza there defines the attributes as substances. Some therefore have read Spinoza as positing God as a kind of “supra-substantial Being constituted by an infinite number of substances-attributes” (quoted from F Di Poppa, ‘Spinoza’s concept of substance-attribute: a reading of the Short Treatise’, p. 921). So in the Short Treatise we seem to be confronted precisely with a definition of God as a being that seems to be unifying other substances, entailing all kinds of questions. So would it not be possible that is was the Short Treatise that caused Hudde to ask these questions?

Eric Schliesser

Hi Jo,
That's very interesting and helpful.
1.) So, in context Spinoza is discussing contingent causes (not all causes), so it's a bit hard to say if he treats it as a general account on causation and explanation. Having said that, I agree with you that he is clearly already discerning that in a causal explanation one is simultaneously in a position to explain an omission/absence. But the point is not developed and it is not yet articulated in full generality as a demand. So, I agree with you that it's wrong to start the narrative with the first letter to Hudde, but I don't think the Short Treatise quite gets at a robust PSR yet.
2. I don't see why there couldn't be multiple necessary beings. (Why does that involve an incoherency?)
I also don't see why the point presupposes the Short Treatise metaphysics.
Given Hudde's interests and stature I think it is very likely he would have been interested in and have knowledge of the Cartesian Principles. (This text was known in the wider republic of letters.) It really is a much larger step to assume he would have knowledge of the Short Treatise (and somehow be in Spinoza's circle of students/intimates), and I don't think that's required by the considerations you offer.

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