Friday, May 05, 2006

Spinoza's philosophy - Wikipedia

Spinoza introduced new ideas such as:

1. God and Nature is one and the same. We could understand it either as "matter is all that exists, there are no supernatural being", or we could understand it as "nature is inherently divine and sacred". We could also understand this "divine nature" as a statement that everything that exists have something in common: "substance"
2. Every human behaviors are determined. The only freedom that people have is to understand why they "have" to behave that way.
3. A deep moral relativism: In the context of determined behaviors, "good" and "evil" are not relevant concepts any more.

These ideas were very important for the enlightment philosophy and the development of social sciences and environmentalism.
Yet, I can't help objecting to the strong metaphysical speculations of Spinoza's ideas. I would prefer more scepticism about our ability to understand human behaviors for example. It is also common sense that we are all responsible for the way we behave to some extent at least. However, Spinoza's ethic did benefit justice by pointing at the role of environmental factors in criminal behaviors.


Benedictus de Spinoza (November 24, 1632February 21, 1677), was named Baruch Spinoza by his synagogue elders and known as Bento de Espinosa or Bento d'Espiñoza in his native Amsterdam. He is considered one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy and, by virtue of his magnum opus the Ethics, one of the definitive ethicists. His writings, like those of his fellow rationalists, reveal considerable mathematical training and facility. Spinoza was a lens crafter by trade, an exciting engineering field at the time because of great discoveries being made by telescopes. The full impact of his work only took effect sometime after his death and after the publication of his Opera Posthuma. He is now seen as having prepared the way for the 18th century Enlightenment, and as a founder of modern biblical criticism.


Born to a great family of Sephardic Jews, among the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam. He had an orthodox Jewish upbringing, however through his critical, curious nature he would soon come into conflict with the Jewish community. He initially gained infamy for his positions of pantheism and neutral monism, as well as the fact that his Ethics was written in the form of postulates and definitions, as though it were a geometry treatise. In the summer of 1656, he was issued the writ of cherem, or excommunicated because of apostasy from the Jewish community for his claims that God is the mechanism of nature and the universe, having no personality, and that the Bible is a metaphorical and allegorical work used to teach the nature of God, both of which were based on a form of Cartesianism (see René Descartes). Following his excommunication, he adopted the first name Benedictus (the Latin equivalent of his given name, Baruch). The terms of his excommunication were quite severe; see Kasher and Biderman (19nn); it was never revoked.
After his excommunication, he lived and worked for a while in the school of Franciscus van den Enden, who taught him Latin and may have introduced him to modern philosophy. In this period Spinoza also became acquainted with several Collegiants, members of a non-dogmatic and interdenominational sect with tendencies towards Rationalism. By the beginning of the 1660s Spinoza's name became more widely known, and eventually Leibniz and Henry Oldenburg paid him visits. He corresponded with the latter for the rest of his life. Spinoza's first publication was his Tractatus de intellectus emendatione. In 1665 he notified Oldenburg that he had started to work on a new book, the Theologico-Political Treatise, published in 1670.
Since the public reactions to the anonymously published Theologico-Political Treatise turned unfavourable to his brand of Cartesianism, Spinoza abstained from publishing more of his works. Wary and independent, he wore a signet ring engraved with his initials, a rose and the word "caute" (Latin for caution). The Ethics and all other works, apart from the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy and the Theologico-Political Treatise, were published after his death in the Opera Postuma edited by his friends.
He lived in Amsterdam and the surrounding area all of his life, earning a comfortable living from lens-grinding. In 1676, Leibniz and Spinoza met at The Hague for a discussion of his principal philosophical work, The Ethics, which had just been completed. He was also supported by small, but regular donations from close friends. He died in 1677 whilst still at work on a political thesis, a premature death which was possibly the result of breathing in glass dust from the lenses he grinded. (Lucas, 1960).

Overview of his philosophy

Known as both the "greatest Jew" and the "greatest Atheist", Spinoza contended that God and Nature were two names for the same reality, namely the single substance (meaning "to stand beneath" rather than "matter") that underlies the universe and of which all lesser "entities" are actually modes or modifications. The argument for this single substance runs something as follows:
1. Substance exists and cannot be dependent on anything else for its existence.
2. No two substances can share an attribute. Proof: If they share an attribute, they would be identical.

Therefore they can only be individuated by their modes. But then they would depend on their modes for their identity. This would have the substance being dependent on its mode, in violation of premise
1. Therefore, two substances cannot share the same attribute.
3. A substance can only be caused by something similar to itself (something that shares its attribute).
4. Substance cannot be caused. Proof: Something can only be caused by something which is similar to itself, in other words something that shares its attribute.
But according to premise 2, no two substances can share an attribute. Therefore substance cannot be caused. 5. Substance is infinite. Proof: If substance were not infinite, it would be finite and limited by something.
But to be limited by something is to be dependent on it. However, substance cannot be dependent on anything else (premise 1), therefore substance is infinite. Conclusion: There can only be one substance. Proof: If there were two infinite substances, they would limit each other. But this would act as a restraint, and they would be dependent on each other. But they cannot be dependent on each other (premise 1), therefore there cannot be two substances.

Spinoza contended that "Deus sive Natura" ("God or Nature") was a being of infinitely many attributes, of which extension and thought were two. His account of the nature of reality, then, seems to treat the physical and mental worlds as two different, parallel "subworlds" that neither overlap nor interact. This formulation is a historically significant panpsychist solution to the mind-body problem known as neutral monism. Spinoza was a thoroughgoing determinist who held that absolutely everything that happens occurs through the operation of necessity. For him, even human behaviour is fully determined, freedom being our capacity to know we are determined and to understand why we act as we do. So freedom is not the possibility to say "no" to what happens to us but the possibility to say "yes" and fully understand why things should necessarily happen that way. By forming more "adequate" ideas about what we do and our emotions or affections, we become the adequate cause of our effects (internal or external), which entails an increase in activity (versus passivity). This means that we become both more free and more like God, as Spinoza argues in the Scholium to Prop. 49, Part II.

Spinoza's philosophy has much in common with Stoicism in as much as both philosophies sought to fulfil a therapeutic role by instructing people how to attain happiness (or eudaimonia, for the Stoics). However, Spinoza differed sharply from the Stoics in one important respect: he utterly rejected their contention that reason could defeat emotion. On the contrary, he contended, an emotion can be displaced or overcome only by a stronger emotion. For him, the crucial distinction was between active and passive emotions, the former being those that are rationally understood and the latter those that are not. He also held that knowledge of true causes of passive emotion can transform it to an active emotion, thus anticipating one of the key ideas of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis.

Some of Spinoza's philosophical positions are: God is the natural world and has no personality. The natural world is infinite. There is no real difference between good and evil. Everything must necessarily happen the way that it does. Therefore, there is no free will. Everything done by humans and other animals is excellent and divine. All rights are derived from the State. Animals can be used in any way by people for the benefit of the human race. [edit]

Ethical philosophy

Encapsulated at the start in his Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding (Tractatus de intellectus emendatione) is the core of Spinoza's ethical philosophy, what he held to be the true and final good. Spinoza held a relativist's position, that nothing is good or bad, except to the extent that it is subjectively perceived to be by the individual. Things are only good or evil in respect that humanity sees it desirable to apply these conceptions to matters. Instead, Spinoza believes in his deterministic universe that, "All things in nature proceed from certain necessity and with the utmost perfection". Therefore, no things happen by chance in Spinoza's world, and reason does not work in terms of contingency. In the universe anything that happens comes from the essential nature of objects, or of God and nature. Perfection therefore, is abound according to Spinoza. If circumstances are seen as unfortunate it is only because of our inadequate conception of reality. Spinoza's point is, there is nothing inherent in any thing, to make it either good or bad. From this he concluded the ethical ventures of other philosophers had been mistaken. Acts such as altruism and piety should be made by the "mere guidance of reason". Spinoza's system also teaches that the knowledge of God induces us "to do those things which love and piety persuade us". For instance, one person may find roasted peanuts tasty and so for her roasted peanuts are good. But another person may be allergic to nuts and so for him peanuts are bad. Spinoza's point is, there is nothing inherent in any thing, like a nut, to make it either good or bad. From this he concluded the ethical ventures of other philosophers had been mistaken. [edit]

The Pantheism Controversy (Pantheismusstreit)

In 1785, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi published a condemnation of Spinoza's pantheism, after Lessing was thought to have confessed on his deathbed to being a "Spinozist". Jacobi claimed that Spinoza's doctrine was pure materialism, because all Nature and God are said to be nothing but extended substance. This, for Jacobi, was the result of Enlightenment rationalism and it would finally end in absolute atheism. Moses Mendelssohn disagreed with Jacobi, saying that there is no actual difference between theism and pantheism. The entire issue became a major intellectual and religious concern for European civilization at the time, which Kant rejected as he thought that attempts to conceive of transcendent reality would lead to antinomies in thought. [edit]

Modern relevance

Albert Einstein said that Spinoza was the philosopher who had most influenced his worldview (Weltanschauung). Spinoza equated God (infinite substance) with Nature, and Einstein, too, believed in an impersonal deity. His desire to understand Nature through physics can be seen as contemplation of God. Arne Næss, the father of the deep ecology movement, acknowledged drawing much inspiration from the works of Spinoza. In the late twentieth century, there was a great increase in philosophical interest in Spinoza in Europe, often from a left-wing and Marxist perspectives. Notable philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri and Étienne Balibar have each written books on Spinoza. Other philosophers heavily influenced by Spinoza were Constantin Brunner and John David Garcia. Stuart Hampshire wrote a major English language study of Spinoza, though H. H. Joachim's work is equally valuable. Spinoza's portrait featured prominently on the 1000 Dutch gulden banknote, legal tender in the Netherlands until the euro was introduced in 2002. The highest and most prestigious scientific prize of the Netherlands is named the Spinozapremie (Spinoza reward).


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