The Whole of Things (De Dijn)

The Whole of Things (from Metaphysics as Ethics, by Herman De Dijn, in God and Nature: Spinoza’s Metaphysics, edited by Yirmiyahu Yovel, Leiden 1991) In Spinoza’s physics, the fundamental categories are the “common notions” and the general laws they imply concerning the nature and interrelations of parts. At most, one gets insight into the space-time continuum of all the parts and the law of the conservation of energy. In his metaphysics, however, the whole is identified as an infinite, sempiternal Whole, which is but an infinite mode of the divine substance. The whole, studied in physics by examining its parts, is interpreted in metaphysics as having not only a “surface” dimension (the whole constituted by the parts), but also a dimension of “depth”, the infinite substance which underlies each of the individual parts as well as the whole. As Natura naturata, the whole can thus be seen to depend radically on substance or Natura naturans, God or substance being at the same time immanent and transcendent.

What is affirmed of God in Spinoza’s rationalistic metaphysics is basically that only God or Nature deserves to be called substance, causa sui, free and eternal – all names which we undeservedly give to ourselves in our anthropocentric conceit. In applying these names to Nature as a substantive whole, Spinoza somehow “individualizes” the whole of things in which we live; this proves to be very important in the relationship between metaphysics and intuitive knowledge. In his metaphysical treatises, Spinoza shows – in the light of the objectifying insights of metaphysics and physics – how to reinterpret the old ethico-religious and metaphysical notions and problems such as God, Providence, mind and body, intellect and will, rationality, freedom, immortality. There interpretation should ensure that all traces of anthropocentrism disappear. Yet, Spinoza was well aware that metaphysics, though for him a strictly cognitive project using the one scientific method, mos geometricus, had to be relevant to the search for salvation. As the continuation and the explication of the anti-anthropocentrism already present in the scientific attitude, this cognitive project was of direct relevance to the problem of salvation. Spinoza was aware that a kind of pedagogical steering of the cognitive project was necessary to arrive at the ultimate aim – salvation through contemplation – as quickly as possible: “I pass now to explaining those things which must necessarily follow from the essence of God, or [sive] the infinite and eternal Being – not, indeed, all of them …, but only those that can lead us, by the hand, as it were, to the knowledge of the human Mind and its highest blessedness” (EIIpref). This guidance of the project leads to the development of a human science in which man objectively understands himself as truly a mode of substance, and to the elaboration of a scientific ethics.