Reconceiving Spinoza by Samuel Newlands
In 1969, Edwin Curley published his Spinoza's Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation. It was a groundbreaking book in which Curley offers a bold and original account of Spinoza's metaphysical theses. In his highly unorthodox but hugely influential reading, he tries to mitigate some of the ontological oddity of Spinoza's claims that "whatever is, is in God," that "from God infinite things follow in infinite ways," and that mind and body are "one and the same thing," by giving them a strictly causal reading. For subsequent scholars, whether they agreed with Curley or not, there was no avoiding his interpretation.
Samuel Newlands seeks likewise to transform our reading of Spinoza in an unconventional—and, as he recognizes, contentious—way. Like Curley, Newlands wants to revise our understanding of the fundamentals of Spinoza's metaphysics. He takes his lead from a problem that Spinoza's contemporaries, and even Spinoza himself, recognized—what we might call the one/many problem. It is expressed by a question that "Lust," one of the characters in the dialogue that Spinoza inserts in his Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being, poses: How can we reconcile the unity of nature with the great diversity that surrounds us? How to account for both the parsimony and plenitude of the world? In Spinoza's terms, how can Nature be both one (substance) and many (modes)?
Like Michael Della Rocca, whose recent Spinoza (2008) attempted to demonstrate that the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) lies at the basis of practically every philosophical thesis and decision that Spinoza takes, Newlands believes that there is a unique key principle to understanding Spinoza's metaphysics, as well as the moral philosophy that follows from it. The key principle is not the PSR, however, but the CS, that is, the "conceptualist strategy," including its many and various but closely related offspring: conceptual dependence monism (CDM), consistent conceptual variability, conceptual sensitivity, conceptual identification etc. (Newlands's book is a compelling and enjoyable read for Spinoza specialists, who [End Page 346] will appreciate the ambition of his project; but it is rather full of jargon, neologisms and abbreviations, too much for my taste.) Newlands uses the conceptualist strategy to tackle a number of enduring textual and philosophical problems in Spinoza, all in order "to preserve the consistency of [Spinoza's] monisms and pluralisms" (54). The strategy involves reducing practically every metaphysical status and relationship to a matter of conceptualization. Thus, Spinoza's claims that God is Thought and God is Extension, that the world is one and the world is many, that modes are necessary and modes are contingent etc., cannot be properly understood independently of how the subjects of such claims are conceived—which, Newlands insists, is distinct from claiming that it is all a matter of how the subjects of such claims are epistemically or subjectively regarded.
To take an example from one of the central chapters, Newlands insists that even the modal status of the finite modes of Nature (the ordinary things that populate the world) is a matter of conceptualization (Chapter 4). One might think that Spinoza's view is quite simple: there is no contingency in Nature, everything is necessary. However, Newlands demurs. "The modal status of a thing, such as whether it exists necessarily, is fixed by how that thing is conceived with respect to certain intra-attribute features." This is not to say that a finite thing's modal status is merely subjective. There is an objective truth value to propositions about modality, but that truth is relative to some conceptual scheme.
The crucial move that Newlands makes, and that sets up much of his subsequent argument, occurs in Chapter 3, where he insists that the various forms of dependence in Spinoza's system—causation, inherence, explanation, following from etc.—are all, in fact, conceptual containment relations. It is not just a matter of coextension or covariation between the former relations and the conceptual one; nor is it simply a matter of all such relations involving or including or being expressible by conceptual dependence. Newlands does not go for half measures. In his view, these are conceptual dependence relations, they reduce to conceptual dependence—this is the central claim of conceptual dependence monism. It is, he insists, the only way to preserve the consistency of Spinoza's ontology.
Newlands pursues his case with great philosophical skill and admirable consistency. Even the essences of things (Chapter 5) and their individuation (Chapter 6) are a function of conceptual framework. Outside of how things are conceived, there is … well, nothing, or at least nothing that can be said truly about them. It does not follow, however, that all conceptual schemes are equal. But the preference for one scheme over another is not to be based on its truth, on its capturing the way things "really are," but on what Newlands calls "practical" or moral grounds—on how a scheme better contributes to our power, activity, freedom, virtue and flourishing.
This ambitious and stimulating book will be much discussed by Spinoza scholars, many of whom will dispute its claims. Nevertheless, this is what original scholarship in the history of philosophy is supposed to do: get us to rethink our assumptions about the philosophers we study. There is a lot in Newlands book I do not agree with, but I am very glad I read it.