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Profile: Spinoza

Christopher Norris argues it is time to reconsider the Dutch master

Spinoza by Gareth Southwell

Spinoza by Gareth Southwell

Baruch (or Benedict de) Spinoza (1632-1677) is one of the most original, forward-looking and hard-to-classify thinkers in the entire history of Western philosophy. Often lumped together with Descartes and Leibniz under the text-book heading “seventeenth-century continental rationalist”, he fits that description in certain ways, such as his steadfast adherence to the rationalist “way of ideas”, but definitely not in others, such as his resolutely holding out against Cartesian mind/body dualism in any guise.

Spinoza was reviled during his lifetime and for two centuries thereafter as an atheist, materialist, heretic, and corrupter of morals, yet he was held up – especially by the German and English romantic philosopher-poets – as a “god-intoxicated” thinker or pantheist mystic who sought to transcend all the bad dichotomies of subject and object, mind and world. Devoted philosophically to an order of truth sub specie aeternitatis – “under the aspect of eternity” – Spinoza was none the less very actively engaged in the turbulent political events of his time, adopting what was, by contemporary standards, an ultra-progressive or radical-left stance on issues like democracy, freedom of speech, and, above all, liberty of religious conscience.

It is on these grounds chiefly that Spinoza has come in for such extremes of obloquy on the one hand and admiration on the other. Both responses have tended to be reinforced by his heterodox views concerning the indissoluble union of mind and body, the failure of Descartes’ attempt to establish their mutually exclusive character, and – following directly from that – the impossibility of conceiving the soul as enjoying some privileged, God-given mode of existence outside and beyond the confines of physical, bodily, or temporal life. Hence Spinoza’s remarkably modern conception of the mind as in some sense an “idea of the body” and of the body as likewise an “idea of the mind”, neither of which can exist in isolation from the other. More than that: one is liable to mis-state the case even when arguing for a version of the mind/body or mind/brain identity thesis since the mere use of those terms – implying as it does that they have some distinct and well-defined sense – carries with it the risk of falling back into that same illusion.

Such was the error that Descartes expressed in an uncompromising, drastically dualist and thus highly problematical form. However, as Spinoza was quick to acknowledge, it was also one that most people routinely accept in a commonsense, intuitive, quasi-self-evident way. This is why he laid maximum stress on the claim that such intuitive or commonsense “knowledge” was very often no such thing but rather the result of our naively accepting the supposed self-evidence of the senses or the various received beliefs and ideologies that happened to prevail at some given time.

Spinoza’s model here was basically that of the advancement of knowledge in the natural sciences, especially as these had developed in the wake of Copernican-Galilean astronomy. Such progress involved a willingness to cease relying on the witness of “obvious”, unreflective sensory experience and instead give credit to the often highly counter-intuitive results of detailed empirical observation combined with the most advanced current techniques of mathematical analysis. This was the crucial stage of transition that occurred with the passage from Spinoza’s “first” to his “second kind of knowledge”, the former having to do with the realm of “confused” or “imaginary” (i.e., sense-based) ideas while the latter marked the advent of “adequate ideas” that had undergone a process of conceptual review, rectification and critique. Philosophic thought should emulate the achievements of physical science and renounce any lingering attachment to a common-sense or vulgar-empiricist outlook of passive trust in the deliverance of mere sensory-perceptual warrant. It could then bid fair to have achieved its own equivalent of the great revolution in physical science whereby post-Copernican astronomers no longer trusted in the sheer self-evidence that the Sun revolved around the earth since, after all, one could see it every day rising at dawn and sinking in the evening.

Spinoza thus belongs squarely to the rationalist tradition in his confident belief that reason was inherently equipped – at least when exercised with due care and in the absence of powerful opposing forces – to arrive at non-self-evident truths through its own capacity for lucid, rigorous and self-critical thought. However he was not at all prone to under-estimate the strength or persistence of such opposing forces, and indeed devoted a good deal of his intellectual energies to explaining their nature and effects. For the most part they resulted either from the mind’s natural tendency to fall back upon received ideas as a buffer against anything that threatened the socio-cultural-intellectual status quo; or else from various well-entrenched systems of belief – chief among them religious dogma and political ideologies – which likewise worked to suppress any signs of a challenge to orthodox habits of thought. What Spinoza found most depressing or alarming about the situation in the Dutch Free Republic of his time was the fact that its hard-won liberties of thought and conscience – those that had once made it a (relatively) safe haven for free-thinking Jewish intellectuals like himself – were in serious danger of being undermined by the forces of resurgent religious fanaticism and sectarian political strife.

This was one reason Spinoza broke off work on the Ethics, philosophically speaking his single most important work, in order to complete another text – the Theologico-Political Treatise – which analysed the biblical sources of Judaeo-Christian religious faith from a scholarly, philological, historically informed and (to orthodox believers deeply abhorrent) sceptical-critical perspective. What he achieved in this ground-breaking work was the invention of analytic methods and techniques that would not be taken up and developed to anything like their full potential until the advent of the mainly German “higher criticism” two centuries later. Their effect, if successful, would be to undermine any notion of the biblical texts as providing an access to revealed or divinely vouchsafed truth by placing them squarely back within the context of their original time and place as products of various specific cultural, political, doctrinal, and ideological pressures. Small wonder that Spinoza – despite his (by all accounts) remarkably placid and forgiving temperament – was not only subject to excommunication and a ritual curse of the utmost brutality by the elders of his own synagogue in Amsterdam, but treated in similar fashion by succeeding generations of Jewish and Christian upholders of dogmatic or orthodox faith.

However it is precisely these heterodox ideas that have secured for Spinoza a preeminent place among the thinkers of a “radical enlightenment” that was in many ways far ahead of its time and even – as some would nowadays claim – abreast of current scientific and cultural developments that philosophy is still struggling to take on board. Thus, for instance, philosophers of mind and cognitive psychologists have recently claimed him as one who showed quite extraordinary prescience in rejecting the Cartesian mind/body (or mind/brain) split and seeking to develop an alternative “monist” conception of mind as intrinsically embodied and the body as intrinsically animate or mindful. For some, like the neurologist Antonio Damasio, Spinoza was a great pioneer in recognizing the extent to which human emotions – whether the “joyful”, life-affirming and positive or the “sad”, depressive and negative affects – are inseparably bound up with both our physical-bodily and mental-intellectual modes of being. For others, like the philosopher Donald Davidson, he pointed the way toward a form of “anomalous monism” whereby it is possible to assert that every mental event has its physical correlate (i.e., a corresponding brain-event) and yet that there exist no strict or exceptionless psycho-physical laws that would simply reduce the mental to the physical and hence entail a determinist doctrine which leaves no room for notions such as free will or moral responsibility.

This was one of the charges brought against Spinoza by his religious and political detractors, a charge often couched in the all-purpose defamatory language of “atheism” or “heresy”. Indeed it is the same kind worry that is still very much in the air when philosophers nowadays strive to maintain some middle-ground position, like Davidson’s, that would pay due regard to the findings of modern science – especially in areas such as neurophysiology and cognitive psychology – whilst leaving room, in principle at least, for the claims of free will or autonomous rational agency.

Spinoza is often invoked in this context of debate although it is far from clear that he would have gone along with such half-way solutions to the various dilemmas bequeathed by Cartesian dualism. No doubt his Romantic admirers were partly right – responsive to one aspect of his thinking that comes through with particular power in Book Five of the Ethics – when they elevate Spinoza to their own company as a pantheist and a nature-mystic, one for whom the “third” and highest kind of knowledge was that “intellectual love of God” to which the mind should properly aspire once it has passed from the realm of confused sensory impressions to that of adequate ideas. For since it is among his most basic convictions that one can speak interchangeably of “God or nature” (in Spinoza’s Latin: deus sive natura) these thinkers could see absolutely no bar to embracing his God-talk on their chosen terms. Yet is just those same passages, perhaps unsurprisingly, that have given most trouble to Spinoza’s more analytically-minded commentators. Thus some have been driven – like Jonathan Bennett – to express a real sense of intellectual outrage and of almost personal betrayal that the thinker who had offered such a range of acutely perceptive arguments up to that point should have fallen prey to a strain of irrationalist mystery-mongering.

Here again what is so remarkable about Spinoza’s reception-history over the past four centuries is the pattern of extreme and sharply conflicting responses to which his work has given rise. If the reason lies partly in the very nature of his thought – its extraordinary power to evoke such disparate and yet (on their own terms) textually warranted modes of interpretation – then it is also a product of those still unresolved issues (especially free will/determinism and mind/body dualism) that continue to vex and divide the philosophical community. Yet the strongest claim on Spinoza’s behalf is his having pointed a way beyond them through his idea that we achieve the greatest degree of active or self-realizing power through exposure to the maximum possible range of formative, provocative, capacity-stretching, psycho-physically stimulating inputs from various sources. Thus his work may fairly be said to signpost the most promising escape-route not only from the sorts of problem that he encountered with Descartes but also, more impressively, from some of the most intractable dilemmas handed down by those later thinkers – Kant preeminent among them – who, while criticizing certain aspects of Cartesian thought, can be seen to have pressed yet further (and bequeathed a yet greater burden of unresolved problems) in a dualist direction. That many of these are still active topics of philosophical debate and still no closer to an adequate solution is one good reason to revisit Spinoza’s extraordinary writings.

Christopher Norris is Distinguished Research Professor in Philosophy at Cardiff University and the author of Spinoza and the Origins of Modern Critical Theory (Blackwell)

Suggested reading:
The Essential Spinoza: Ethics and related writings, ed. Michael L. Morgan (Hackett)
The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza ed. Don Garrett (Cambridge University Press)
Spinoza, Stuart Hampshire (Penguin)


3 comments for “Profile: Spinoza”

  1. A very good (but lengthy) read on Spinoza is Jonathan’s Israel’s Radical Enlightenment, Spinoza being the hero of the book.

    Posted by Gaby Charing | February 25, 2010, 4:52 pm
  2. ‘Betraying Spinoza - The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity - by Rebecca Goldstein is very good and sheds light on much that has not been previously addressed.

    Posted by Anne | March 3, 2010, 4:30 pm
  3. What grabs me is how Spinoza has featured so readily in the work of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, as well as Deleuze.

    Negri and Hardt write on Globalisation and its political form: Empire. Yet Spinoza crops up again and again.

    An avenue to explore?

    Posted by Graeme Kemp | March 10, 2011, 3:52 pm