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The Philosophy of Baruch Spinoza

Benedict de Spinoza (1632–1677 ce) has been a figure of some notoriety in the history of Western philosophy. Born in Amsterdam, into a community of Marrano Jews from Portugal, the young Spinoza had an uneasy relationship to both Christianity and Judaism. In 1656, he was excommunicated by the Amsterdam synagogue for unorthodox views on God, prophecy, the human soul, and immortality. He lived a reclusive life, supporting himself through work as a lens grinder, and died of consumption – a death which Hegel, in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, described as “in harmony with his system of philosophy, according to which all particularity and individuality pass away in the one substance” (Hegel, 1974, p. 254). Spinoza’s writings were rejected as atheistic by his early critics. In the next century, especially in Germany, their reception was more ambivalent. His alleged identification of God and the world was caught up in debates about pantheism – the doctrine that God and Nature are identical – and Spinozism became an important strand in the development of Romanticism.

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Spinoza’s thought had less influence on the development of the dominant streams in modern academic philosophy than that of his contemporary, René Descartes. However, more recent philosophy has seen a convergence of interest in Spinoza’s philosophy from diverse perspectives. Edwin Curley’s excellent translations have made Spinoza more accessible to English-speaking readers, making his insights more readily assimilated into discussion of a range of topics on the agenda of contemporary academic philosophy. For example, Spinoza’s treatment of the mind as idea of the body – expressing in thought the same reality that is expressed also as body – has posed important challenges to modern classifications of philosophical views on the mind–body relation. Because Spinoza claims that minds and bodies equally express, in different ways, the same reality, his doctrine cannot be equated with either idealism or materialism. Yet the status of mind and matter as irreducibly different attributes of the same substance – different and equal ways of understanding what is fundamentally the same reality – makes it also difficult to assimilate the doctrine to an “identity” theory, according to which the mental could be defined in terms of the physical. Modern European philosophy has emphasized other aspects of Spinoza’s philosophy – highlighting especially his integration of reason, emotion and imagination, and the dynamic character of his treatment of individual existence and of collective power (see especially Deleuze, 1978; Negri, 1981; Montag and Stolze, 1997).

Among Spinoza’s early writings are the unfinished Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, which was included in the works published posthumously in 1677, and the Short Treatise on God, Man and His Wellbeing, which was published only in the nineteenth century. The Short Treatise deals with many of the themes of the later and better known Ethics, and exhibits the integration of metaphysical and ethical concerns that is a distinctive feature of Spinoza’s mature philosophy. His metaphysical views – often startling and apparently outrageous – grew out of his early commentary on Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy, to which he appended a brief treatment of key doctrines in scholastic philosophy, the Metaphysical Thoughts. The Tractatus Theologico Politicus, published in 1670, deals with issues of textual interpretation, prophecy, and miracles, as well as more obviously political issues of power and freedom. It was the hostile reception to this work that prompted Spinoza’s decision not to publish the Ethics during his lifetime.

The Ethics was written over an extended period, and commentators – especially Gilles Deleuze and Antonio Negri – have emphasized the significance for the character of this work of its interruption by the more directly political concerns of the Tractatus Theologico Politicus. What results is a novel integration of abstract definitions of metaphysical concepts such as substance, attributes, and modes, with reflection on ideals of freedom, virtue, and the eternity of the mind. Spinoza’s other political work, the Political Treatise, in which he compares and evaluates rival systems of government, was unfinished at the time of his death.

Spinoza is usually classified as a “rationalist” philosopher – committed to the primacy of pure reasoning in the pursuit of knowledge, and to grounding certainty in deductions from supposedly self-evident defi- nitions and principles. But although much of his philosophy developed out of the work of his fellow rationalist, Descartes, it also incorporates elements from ancient and medieval philosophy – from Aristotle, the Stoics, and Maimonides – as well as from another of his contemporaries, Thomas Hobbes. The diverse range of Spinoza’s sources is documented in Harry Wolfson’s study of Spinoza. But, as Wolfson stresses, Spinoza creatively transformed his sources into radically new and often unsettling ideas. His originality as a philosopher is expressed in this extraordinary capacity to adapt old concepts and themes to yield new and controversial theses. This is particularly striking in Spinoza’s transformation of his Cartesian sources.

Descartes had treated mind and matter as different “substances” – separately existing and divinely created distinct kinds of being. For Spinoza, mind and matter become different “attributes” of the one Substance – different ways in which the one reality can be truly apprehended – and this unique Substance is identified with God or Nature. This God is clearly something very different from religious ideas of a benign Creator who can be held responsible for the existence of the world and for human well-being. Spinoza’s God acts not from any free will directed toward ends or goals, but from necessity. A God who acts for the sake of achieving ends, Spinoza argues, would have to be less than perfect; for there would be something which he lacks. The perfect God must express his perfection in the totality of causally connected finite things which make up the world – the total expression of God under the attribute of matter. But this way of construing divine necessity has a further consequence: although finite things depend on God for their existence, the causal relations which connect them with one another to make up the actually existing world must also be necessary. This actual world is the only one possible.

This shift in the concept of God has startling implications for the status of individual human minds. Descartes had of course seen individual minds as causally dependent for their being on God, their Creator. But each mind had its own existence as a separately existing individual substance. For Spinoza, the individual mind becomes just one of many modes – a particular modification of Substance, expressed under the attribute of thought. Rather than standing alone as a separate entity, the mind becomes, as Spinoza provocatively puts it, an “idea” in “the mind of God.” Individual bodies are likewise modes of that same God or Substance, expressed as “extension” or matter; and each mind, as an “idea,” has such a body as its primary object of awareness.

Spinoza’s audacious transformation of the traditional understanding of God and of human minds was central to the hostile reception of his work. His early critics saw his doctrine of the uniqueness of Substance as downgrading God. Although Spinoza insisted that his God was expressed not only as matter and as thought, but also under an infinity of other attributes, he was perceived as committed to reducing the nature of God to that of the material world, and hence as guilty of an atheistic pantheism. Hegel’s interpretation was more subtle. Spinozism he suggested, might be better termed “Acosmism,” since it ascribes reality ultimately to God alone: “The allegations of those who accuse Spinoza of atheism are the direct opposite of the truth; with him there is too much God” (Hegel, 1974, pp. 281–2).

Hegel gave eloquent expression to a way of thinking of Spinoza’s “monism” which has persisted into more recent commentary. His Spinoza is committed to an all-encompassing wholeness of being, in which individual existence disappears. In Hegel’s colourful presentation of the implications of Spinozism, everything particular and determinate is cast into the “abyss of the one identity,” where it ceases to be distinguishable from anything else. This view of Spinoza as the philosopher of the abyss is in some ways misleading. Although they are no longer individual substances, particular bodies are distinguished from one another in terms of the preservation of dynamic ratios – different rhythms, as it were – of motion and rest. Finite individuals strive to persist in being as particular proportions of bodily movement. Such striving is for Spinoza their very essence. The existence of individual bodies is enhanced by contact with other bodies – other proportions of motion and rest – which are congenial to them; and they are obstructed by other, less congenial, impinging essences. Minds, as ideas of bodies, also strive to persist as ever clearer articulations of their own bodies as part of nature. This crucial concept of bodily and mental striving – conatus – is the basis for Spinoza’s development of an ethic centered on the joyful pursuit, individually and collectively, of whatever enhances human selfpreservation and thriving.

Some of the most important and vexed interpretative issues posed by Spinoza’s philosophy concern his treatment of the relations between “inadequate” and “adequate” knowledge, and especially of the relations between reason and imagination. His treatment of body as an attribute of substance – and hence as of equal metaphysical status to mind – gives imagination, as the awareness of body, a new importance. Both imagination and reason are grounded in the complex structure of the human body, which allows it to retain traces of past interactions with other bodies. This makes it possible for the mind to compare different ideas, grasping what is common to all bodies in ideas that are not tied to any particular body. Such ideas Spinoza calls “common notions”: corresponding to what bodies have in common, they can be said also to be common to all minds. So although the awareness of body is the source of the confusions of imagination – when we draw conclusions about the natures of things from the way they affect us when they happen to impinge on our own bodies – it also makes possible higher forms of knowledge.

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There are important connections between Spinoza’s treatment of knowledge in the Ethics and his political writings. He sees the ideal life of reason as counterpoised to the life of the “multitude,” who are dominated by imagination and the passions, especially fear and hope. But the power of reason over imagination and the passions centers on its capacity to understand their operation in individual and social life – including the collective fears and hopes which he discusses in the political works. The understanding of the role of religious ideas in collective life is for Spinoza also closely connected with the concerns of political philosophy. His most important political work, the Tractatus Theologico Politicus, includes discussion of prophecy, miracles, and divine law, and of the correct methods for interpreting scriptural texts, as well as of the nature of political institutions. This integration of religious and political themes can be perplexing for modern readers. But Spinoza’s concern with understanding the operations of imagination and emotion forms a connecting thread through the apparently disparate topics.

The power of reason to understand and hence transform the operations of imagination and the passions is central also to Spinoza’s treatment of human freedom. He sees freedom as residing not in a faculty of free will, able to control the non-rational, but in an understanding of the necessities that govern human beings as part of nature. The belief in human free will is an illusion arising from ignorance of the causes of our actions, and the belief in divine purpose is also an illusion – a retreat, as Spinoza puts it in the appendix to part one of the Ethics, to the “sanctuary of ignorance.” Belief in a divine will breeds the superstitious belief that everything happens in accordance with a benign providence concerned with human well-being. Belief in human will also misleads us, encouraging us to think of ourselves as somehow exempt from the causal forces that determine the necessities of the rest of the world.

The picture of a world devoid of will and purpose may seem a bleak one. But Spinoza – developing themes from ancient stoicism – reconstructs freedom as understanding and joyfully acquiescing in necessity. The understanding of the passions is also their remedy, taking us from bondage into freedom. For Spinoza the passions are by definition states of passivity – deprivations of power and activity. But to the extent that the mind understands those states of passivity it moves into a greater state of activity; and this for Spinoza is the state of joy. Understanding the passions is the path to freedom and virtue – to a life of active, rational emotion. In the free life of reason, human beings seek their own preservation and thriving, with a joy that by-passes the need for external authority. But because we are unavoidably part of nature, unable to fully grasp the totality of our relations with other things, such ideal freedom can be only imperfectly achieved.

It is a distinctive feature of Spinoza’s version of rationalism that he commits himself to a form of knowledge higher than reason. Reason is superior to imagination, but it is itself inferior to what Spinoza calls “intuitive knowledge.” This highest form of knowledge is distinguished from reason by its capacity to take things in “in one glance,” and by the fact that it understands things in relation to God, the unique Substance, on which they depend. Through intuitive knowledge the mind also comes to an understanding of itself as eternal.

The doctrine of the eternity of the mind unfolds in the concluding sections of the Ethics. Some commentators dismiss these sections as impenetrable; others see them as the high point of the Ethics, where Spinoza’s elaboration of the concepts of substance, attributes, and modes issues in profound insights into the well lived life. These passages illuminate the interactions between reason, imagination, and emotion in Spinoza’s version of wisdom. Intuitive knowledge is inseparable from a powerful emotion – the “intellectual love of God.” When the mind comes to understand its own status as a modification of God, this transition to greater understanding brings with it a joy that is comprised in God’s eternal love of himself. By coming to a fuller understanding of its own finitude, the mind grasps itself as eternal. In that apparent paradox, the concluding sections of the Ethics offers a reconciliation of intellect, imagination, and emotion in a unified vision of the mind that undercuts the oppositions – often associated with seventeenth-century rationalism – between reason and supposedly lesser aspects of mental life.

Further reading

The Philosophy of Socrates

Literary Criticism of Aristotle 

The Philosophy of Rene Descartes

Allison, Henry: Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction, rev. edn (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1987).
Bennett, Jonathan: A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984).
Curley Edwin: Spinoza’s Metaphysics: An Essay in Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).
——: Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).
Deleuze, Gilles: Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988).
Donagan, Alan: Spinoza (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1988).
Gatens, Moira and Lloyd, Genevieve: Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).
Hegel, Georg W. F.: Lectures on the History of Philosophy, volume 3, trans. E. S. Haldane and F. H. Stimson (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1974).
Lloyd, Genevieve: Part of Nature: Self-knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994).
——: Spinoza and the Ethics (London and New York: Routledge, 1996).
Montag, Warren and Stolze, Ted: The New Spinoza (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
Nadler, Steven: Spinoza: A Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).
Negri, Antonio: The Savage Anomaly: the Power of Spinoza’s Metaphysics and Politics, trans. Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991).
Wolfson, Harry A.: The Philosophy of Spinoza (New York: Meridian, 1934, 1958).

Bibliography
Writings

Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy with Appendix, Containing Metaphysical Thoughts (1663). In The Collected Works of Spinoza, volume I, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).
A Theologico-political Treatise (1670), trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover, 1951).
Ethics (1677). In The Collected Works of Spinoza, volume 1, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985). [Note: the Ethics and selections from Spinoza’s other works are included also in A Spinoza Reader, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994).
A Political Treatise (1677), trans. R. H. M. Elwes (New York: Dover, 1951). Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (1677). In The Collected Works of Spinoza, volume 1, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).
Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-being. In The Collected Works of Spinoza, volume 1, ed. and trans. Edwin Curley (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985).

 

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