Sunday, May 28, 2006

Finding Spinoza

Click here to read an interview with Rebecca Goldstein about her new book, Betraying Spinoza (via 3 Quarks Daily).

I've not gotten around to reading Spinoza, myself, but I've read of him, and find him to be a fascinating figure. Benedict de Spinoza (1632 - 1677) was described by Bertrand Russell as:

the noblest and most lovable of the great philosphers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.
As Russell coyly alludes to, it is easy to see why Spinoza was hated by the authorities of his day when one considers his philosophy. Spinoza was a naturalist, skeptical of the supernatural, who believed that there was no personal God. For Spinoza, "God" was the reason of the universe, a sum of matter and logic (see pantheism); he believed a godly life was one devoted to reason, to trying to understand our nature in a deterministic universe (in which there is no free will), while advocating the seperation of church and state. In addition, Spinoza believed that the human mind is an affect of the human body. These are positions that the authorities of Spinoza's day rejected, and as a result his work was censored or banned through most of Europe.

In Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, Antonio Damasio writes that because Spinoza's work was banned or censored in most of Europe philosophers could not openly acknowledge or cite Spinoza, so that although his ideas lived on to influence the Enlightenment, his reputation did not. For example, he (Damasio) writes that Montesquieu, one of the intellectual fathers of modern democracy, was denounced for Spinozism and was made to publicly deny Spinoza's influence on his views.*

I'm not in the mood to review Damasio's book further, but I think I'll conclude by saying that it is a somewhat personal and humanistic effort to "find" the lost meaning in the work of a philosopher who Damasio views as a protobiologist who anticipated by several centuries the research in neurobiology that Damasio now does, and whom Damasio believes still offers valuable insight into how a human life might best be lived.

*One will notice in the Goldstein interview that she also sees a link between Spinoza and secular democracy, linking the publication of the Tractacus to the Declaration of Independence.

UPDATE: I was looking for a review of Goldstein's book and came across a Salon review which provides a more detailed look at her book, Betraying Spinoza, than the interview linked above. It's a bit amusing to see that the reviewer, Laura Miller, and I must have been on a similar wavelengths, because in her opening sentences she makes mention of both Russell's description of Spinoza and Damasio's book, while she also makes the protobiologist reference at the end of her review.


Anonymous said...

What a coincidence – for some reason I’ve been thinking a lot about Spinoza lately. To me, he should get more credit for his philosophy – but it seems to me that Leibniz and Hume get a lot more attention. I may be wrong about this, but I got the impression that Spinoza was very influential in a lot of Hume’s work. Of course, they’re both empiricists, so that would make sense to a certain extent anyway.

Hume's Ghost said...

Damasio noted also that Leibniz used to visit with Spinoza and that he was a bit jealous of Spinoza's brilliance, telling someone, his brother if I recall correctly, to be careful about revealing ideas around Spinoza.

I'm not sure about Hume and Spinoza, but Bertrand Russell observed in The History of Western Philosophy that Spinoza might have been more famous if Hume had been more patient with him, whatever that might mean.

Anonymous said...

There is a new great novel on Baruch Spinoza, published by Northwestern University Press. The title is Conversation with Spinoza. Prizing ideas above all else, radical thinker Baruch Spinoza left little behind in the way of personal facts and furnishings. But what of the tug of necessity, the urgings of the flesh, to which this genius philosopher (and grinder of lenses) might have been no more immune than the next man-or the next character, as Baruch Spinoza becomes in this intriguing novel by the remarkable young Macedonian author Goce Smilevski. Smilevski's novel brings the thinker Spinoza, all inner life, into conversation with the outer, all-too-real facts of his life and his day--from his connection to the Jewish community of Amsterdam, his excommunication in 1656, and the emergence of his philosophical system to his troubling feelings for his fourteen-year-old Latin teacher Clara Maria van den Enden and later his disciple Johannes Casearius. From this conversation there emerges a compelling and complex portrait of the life of an idea--and of a man who tries to live that idea.

Anonymous said...

Of the "modern" philosophers, only three included any content on what we know as the emotions: Descartes, Spinoza, and "reason is a slave of the passions" Hume. Not even Nietzsche had much to say about this curious fact about Human Nature.

As noted, Spinoza is creditted with the first account of pantheism. A second reason to read him.

Spinoza was primarily a practical philosopher, so all his theory is entailed in his practical treatise: "Ethics." All of his works are accessible, and also a joy.

As for Damasio, philosophers know that a counterexample disproves a theorem, but for Damasio a counterexample instantiates a theory. Readers beware.

Hume's Ghost said...

I beware Damasio because of his apologetics for Freud.