Lecture Supplement Introducing Spinoza

     Copyright © 2012 Bruce W. Hauptli

I. Spinoza’s Life [1632-1677]:[1]

Baruch Spinoza came from a family of Portuguese Jews.  His grandfather immigrated to Amsterdam to escape religious persecution (the Inquisition).[2]  Spinoza grew up within a thriving Jewish community, worshiped at the Synagogue, and was a very promising student at the Jewish High School.  His father, Michael, presided over the rabbinical school of the Jewish community of Amsterdam.  Spinoza studied widely (unlike Descartes, Leibniz, Locke, Berkeley, or Hume, he was very well versed in the Jewish scholars of the medieval period, and through their translations with the medieval Arabic scholars).  He was fluent in Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese; he also spoke or read Dutch, Latin, French, Italian, and German.  In Amsterdam the wide availability and circulation of the Hebrew texts made his mastery of a wide variety of past thinkers possible.  As A. Robert Caponigri notes, an important influence in this intellectual development was the fact that after attending the rabbinical school,

...Spinoza attended another school conducted by...Franz van den Enden, who had been a Catholic, but had later gained a reputation, or better, a certain notoriety, as a free thinker. 
These circumstances were important, for Van den Enden’s influence is held accountable by Spinoza’s biographers for the first doubts he experienced concerning his rabbinic training and for the first entrance of the current free-thought into his consciousness.[3] 

Spinoza’s wide learning led him to have doubts regarding his faith, and at 24 years of age (in 1656) he was excommunicated and anathematized from the Congregation of Israel for his unorthodox views.[4]  In 1660 he was “expelled” from the city of Amsterdam (because he was “a menace to piety and morals”).   

     Spinoza substituted the Latin equivalent for his first name and went by “Benedict” rather than Baruch, and was without significant contact with his family or former community for most of the remainder of his life.  R.H.M. Elwes notes that:  

only once again does his family come into the record of his life.  On the death of his father, his sisters endeavored to deprive him of his share in the inheritance on the ground that he was an outcast and heretic.  Spinoza resisted their claim by law, but on gaining his suit yielded up to them all they had demanded except one bed.[5] 

Spinoza lived quietly outside Amsterdam in a number of small villages, and finally in The Hague.  As Caponigri notes:

although excluded from his community, Spinoza found protectors and was able to continue his program of study and work.  The traditional account that he ground lenses in order to make a living has been proven groundless.  Instead, it has been established that he was supported by a number of considerable endowments of which he was the beneficiary and which had been established by friends such as Jelles, De Vries and De Witte....[6] 

Seymour Feldman notes that:

Spinoza spent the remainder of his relatively short life thinking, performing scientific experiments in optics, chemistry, and perhaps too in anatomy, writing and in conversation with his friends.  Eventually his reputation grew, and he was offered a professorship at the famous Heidelberg University in Germany.  Spinoza rejected the invitation on the grounds that such a position might compromise his philosophical principals and freedom.  Although he never left the Netherlands, his philosophical correspondence with Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the London Royal Society, kept him informed of scientific ideas in England, especially the chemical experiments of Robert Boyle.  He was visited by German thinkers Tschirnhaus and Leibniz, both of whom were close students of the Ethics even before it was published.[7] 

     After his expulsion, Spinoza composed an Apology (which is now lost) and began work on his Brief Treatise on God, Man and His Beatitude (posthumously published), On the Correction of the Intellect (posthumously published), Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (published in 1663), the Ethics (posthumously published), and Theological-Political Treatise (published anonymously in 1670).  As Caponigri notes, the publication of the Theological-Political Treatise: 

...was made possible by the protection of powerful friends, especially the De Witte brothers: the work raised a storm of protest because of its pleas for tolerance. 
The death of the De Witte brothers during an insurrection in 1672 left Spinoza bereft of protection; the succeeding regime was much less tolerant and he was unable to release the Ethics which had been prepared for publication in 1677.[8]   

Elwes notes that:

in the seventeenth century all men’s deepest convictions were inseparably bound up with anthropomorphic notions of the Deity; Spinoza, in attacking these latter and endeavoring to substitute the conception of eternal and necessary law, seemed to be striking at the very roots of moral order: hence with curious irony his works, which few read and still fewer understood, became associated with notions of monstrous impiety, and their author, who loved virtue with single-hearted and saintly devotion, was branded a railer against God and a subverter of morality, whom it was a shame even to speak of.[9] 

I think it is important to keep these “facts” in mind as the general picture often painted of this period of Dutch History is that of its “Golden Age.”  In an article which discusses periods of excellent economic growth in the July 28, 1997 issue of Time Magazine, for example, the following characterization is offered:

the Netherlands of William of Orange, Rembrandt and Descartes flourished through its diversity.  The country welcomed immigrants fleeing persecution elsewhere in Europe.  Its religious and cultural tolerance attracted merchants, artisans and financiers whose skills helped their new homeland dominate pre-industrial Europe.[10]  

This picture of the Netherlands of Spinoza’s time is a popular one, but as the citations above make clear, it offers a far too quick and facile a depiction of the tolerance of the times.  While there was, indeed, far more tolerance in the Netherlands than elsewhere, Spinoza’s story clearly indicates that there were significant constraints upon tolerance in the Netherlands at that time.  This fact had a profound effect upon Spinoza. 

2. An Introduction to Spinoza’s Philosophy:

(a) Spinoza’s “motivation” for philosophizing:

Elwes notes that Spinoza “...did not seek, like Descartes, ‘to walk with certainty,’ but to find a happiness beyond the reach of change for himself and his fellow men.”[11]  That is to say, Spinoza has a practical, rather than a purely theoretical, motivation to philosophize.  In his On the Improvement of the Understanding (written in 1662, but published posthumously) Spinoza speaks of the factors which motivated him to philosophize:

all the objects pursued by the multitude not only bring no remedy that tends to preserve our being, but even act as hindrances, causing the death not seldom of those who possess them, and always of those who are possessed by them....All these evils seem to have arisen from the fact, that happiness or unhappiness is made wholly to depend on the quality of the object which we love.  When a thing is not loved, no quarrels will arise concerning it—no sadness will be felt if it perishes—no envy if it is possessed by another—no fear, no hatred, in short no disturbances of the mind.  All these arise from the love of what is perishable, such as the objects already mentioned.  But love towards a thing eternal and infinite feeds the mind wholly with joy, and is itself unmingled with any sadness, wherefore it is greatly to be desired and sought for with all our strength.[12] 


...the terms good and evil are only applied relatively, so that the same thing may be called both good and bad, according to the relations in view, in the same way as it may be called perfect or imperfect.  Nothing regarded in its own nature can be called perfect or imperfect; especially when we are aware that all things which come to pass, come to pass according to the eternal order and fixed laws of nature.  However, human weakness cannot attain to this order in its own thoughts, but meanwhile man conceives a human character much more stable than his own, and sees that there is no reason why he should not himself acquire such a character.  Thus he is led to seek for means which will bring him to this pitch of perfection....the character is...knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.  This, then, is the end for which I strive, to attain such a character myself and to endeavor that many would attain it with me.  In other words, it is part of my happiness to lend a helping hand, that many others may understand even as I do so that their understanding and desire may entirely agree with my own.[13] 

Understanding what this “character” amounts to, of course, is tantamount to understanding what Spinoza’s philosophical theory is.  Once we understand this philosophy, paradoxically, it will seem that the impulse to philosophize (and to lend a helping hand to others) becomes most difficult to understand.[14]  To understand this “problem,” however, we must first understand the “system.” 

(b) Spinoza on his deity and on Descartes:

Spinoza’s Principles of Cartesianism Geometrically Demonstrated (published in 1663), was very critical of Descartes’ orientation, and it was discussed widely (and critically).  In writing to Oldenburg, Spinoza maintained that the chief defects in Descartes’ and of Bacon’s philosophies were that “...they have gone far astray from knowledge of the first cause and origin of all things.  Secondly, they have failed to achieve true understanding of the true nature of the human mind.  Thirdly, they have never grasped the true cause of error.”[15]  As Frederick Copleston notes, “in Spinoza’s view the proper order of philosophical argument demands that we should start with that which is ontologically and logically prior....”[16] 

     Spinoza rejected the idea of a transcendent deity, and against Maimonides he maintained that we could not look for truth in the Scriptures.  As Copleston notes, Spinoza believed that philosophy could provide truth where the Scriptures could not:

philosophy gives us the truth in purely rational, not in pictorial, form.  And as philosophy tells us that the ultimate reality is infinite, this reality must contain all being within itself.  God cannot be something apart from the world.  This idea of God as the infinite Being which expresses itself in, and yet comprises within itself the world seems to have been suggested at least to Spinoza by his reading of Jewish mystical (Cabalistic) writers.[17]   

Whereas Descartes begins his Meditations in epistemology, Spinoza begins in metaphysics.  I think the best way to see his work is to construe him as addressing the question: “What must we suppose the universe to be like if it is to be wholly intelligible.”[18]  Spinoza takes seriously the idea that there is a fundamental and completely intelligible uniformity to the universe—that it is wholly law-like (and that the laws are deterministic laws).[19] 

     Contra Pascal, Spinoza believed that love of the deity which is essential for happiness comes only with rational knowledge of the deity: 

as the love of God is man’s highest happiness and blessedness, and the ultimate end and aim of all human actions, it follows that he alone lives by the Divine law who loves God not from fear of punishment, or from love of any other object, such as sensual pleasure, fame, or the like; but solely because he has knowledge of God, or is convinced that the knowledge and love of God is the highest good.[20]   

As Alasdair MacIntyre notes, Spinoza rejects a good deal of traditional theology while talking about his deity:

on a traditional Jewish view—in a scholastic work such as Moses Maimonindes’s Guide of the Perplexed—the only ground of creation lies in the free and mysterious will of God, and there is no necessity that what has actually been created should have been created; there is simply the divine fiat.  On this view, explanation terminates with a brute fact, the fact that God created thus and not otherwise; and for Spinoza there are no ultimate brute facts, let alone this one.  Both his ideal of understanding generally and his conception of the divine lead straight to a rejection of the orthodox doctrine of creation.  Nonetheless, Spinoza is prepared to conceive of God as the creator of the world—in a sense which the orthodox Jew or Christian might well take to be Pickwickian—provided God is understood to be the immanent and continuing cause of the world and not just its transient first cause.”[21] 

MacIntyre goes on to note that Spinoza also rejects the notion of divine teleology, purpose, or endeavor:

it is not just that he rejects all forms of the Argument from Design; he rejects the very conception of God’s having purposes, designs, or desires for the world.  To suppose this is to suppose that God wishes to bring about some state of affairs which does not yet exist; and to suppose this is to suppose that there is something which God at present lacks but which he needs or desires.  This is absurd.  God ex hyposthesi can lack nothing.  If God has no purposes, a fortiori he can have no moral purpose for mankind.  At once traditional Jewish morality is brought in question, and with it the status of the Scriptures.[22]

(c) Spinoza, the consummate rationalist substance philosopher:

While some philosophers treat Spinoza as a “god-intoxicated” man and others treat him as a materialist, and still other treat him as interested in salvaging as much as he can from traditional religious views, I will treat his as a thoroughgoingrationalist substance philosopher”—as I see him, he hopes to develop the consequences of defining substance as Descartes does:  

by substance, we can understand nothing else than a thing which so exists that it needs no other thing in order to exist.  And in fact only one single substance can be understood which clearly needs nothing else, namely, God.  We perceive that all other things can exist only by the help of the concourse of God.  That is why the word substance does not pertain univoce to God and to other things, as they say in the Schools, that is, no common signification for this appellation which will apply equally to God and to them can be distinctly understood.[23] 

Spinoza takes this definition of substance seriously noting that there should be only one substance for Descartes.  For Spinoza this one substance is called “god,” but he also calls it “nature.”  His god can not “transcend” nature because there is only one thing—he is a monist! 

     For Spinoza, then, the universe is completely intelligible—everything is rationally explainable.  This leads directly to a commitment to an ontological argument for the deity’s existence, and to a denial of contingency in the world.  For Spinoza causation must be connected to rational explanation, and there is only one form of the latter: deductive reasoning.  As was the case for Descartes, then, Spinoza’s model of intelligibility is geometry—for Spinoza, to show that something is true, or to explain it, one must show that it is a part of the total overall deductive system.  Thus, his writing style in The Ethics is not accidental.   

     In his The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of His Reasoning, Harry Wolfson maintains that:

in Descartes the mathematical analogies are used only as illustrations in his discussions of the method of demonstration.  In no way do these analogies imply that Descartes conceived the universe as a whole to be governed by laws of necessity like those which prevail in mathematics.  In his universe, according to his own statements, there was still room for final causes, for a divine will, and for human freedom.  In Spinoza, on the other hand, the mathematical analogies are used as illustrations of the existence of inexorable laws of necessity throughout nature.[24] 

For Spinoza such doctrines as those of divine will, final causation, and human freedom are incompatible with the notion of a completely rational universe.  Given his conception of rationality (that is given his unswerving commitment to deductivism), there is no room for these other concepts in his system. 

     Spinoza believes we must grasp complex systems as wholes if we are to see the role(s) of their parts:  

...let us imagine, with your permission, a little worm, living in the blood, able to distinguish by sight the particles of blood, lymph, &c., and to reflect on the manner in which each particle, on meeting with another particle, either is repulsed, or communicates a portion of its own motion.  This little worm would live in the blood, in the same way as we live in a part of the universe, and would consider each particle of blood, not as a part, but as a whole.  He would be unable to determine, how all the parts are modified by the general nature of blood, and are compelled by it to adapt themselves, so as to stand in a fixed relation to one another.  For, if we imagine that there are no causes external to the blood, which could communicate fresh movements to it, nor any space beyond the blood, nor any bodies whereto the particles of blood could communicate fresh movements to it, it is certain that the blood would always remain in the same state, and its particles would undergo no modifications, save those which may be conceived as arising from the relations of motion existing between the lymph, the chyle, &c.  The blood would then always have to be considered as a whole, not as a part.[25] 

Spinoza’s commitment to deductive reason as the means for discovering the truth may look extremely odd to contemporary thinkers.  As Martin Hollis points out:

it is widely believed today (at any rate by non-philosophers) that necessary truths have to do with the meanings of terms and not with facts; that they are tautologies and lack all factual content.  If this is right, the guarantee that being necessary stamps on mathematical truths is an empty one.  But, right or not, it is not at all the Rationalists’ view.  The Rationalists held that there are necessary facts; that in at least some ways, the world could not possibly be otherwise than it is.  For example, when Hobbes assures us that men are essentially material creatures driven by a selfish lust for power, he intends to announce a truth as certain as that all bachelors are unmarried and as informative as that sugar is soluble in water.  The Rationalists looked to necessary truths to provide an indisputable account and explanation of the workings of the universe.[26] 

     Spinoza is uncompromising in his demand that things be understood within the overall deductive context which preserves the fundamental uniformity and intelligibility of the universe.  As Harry Wolfson notes, four points in this regard are important:

...many thinkers who otherwise touted the uniformity allowed for fundamental metaphysical distinctions (distinguishing men from beasts, angels from men, and/or God and the rest of nature).  In short, they were dualists.  Spinoza rejected dualism and, thus extended the concept of materiality even to God.  Thus, however much the principle of materiality was extended to the various parts of the universe, the universe as a whole was still divided into two distinct realms, a material world and an immaterial God.  By declaring that God has the attribute of extension as well as of thought, Spinoza has thus removed the break in the principle of the homogeneity of nature.  This is his first act of daring.[27] 

Spinoza noted that many thinkers held that while God is omni-potent, he is bounded by the laws of logic.  They viewed God as an all-powerful constitutional monarch, limited by laws, and guided by will and desire.  These are contradictory characteristics—one can not talk consistently both of a fundamental uniformity and of miracles.  Wolfson notes that:

theologians were vying with each other to declare that God cannot make a square whose diagonal shall be equal to one of its sides, or that He cannot cause one substance to have at the same time two opposite properties.  But the constitution by which according to the rationalist theologians God had limited His own power was only partly written and known to us....Thus to them it was conceivable that God could create the world ex nihilo, that He could know individual things, that He could have a foreknowledge of what man would do without depriving him of freedom of choice, that He could change His will while remaining immutable, and that He could perform all kinds of miracles.  The inconsistencies of these beliefs with the conception of God as a constitutional monarch limited by eternal and immutable laws were generally recognized, widely discussed, and somehow reconciled, but all the attempts at their reconciliation were really nothing more than a declaration that a part of the divine constitution was never communicated to man and that we are ignorant of the laws by which God operates the universe....It was left for Spinoza to do away with the unwritten and unknown part of the constitutional privileges of God’s rule.  God to him is law without any loophole and any without any escape to ignorance.  The laws of the universe which are operative from eternity, he declares, can never be upset by a power above them for a purpose unknown to us.  By denying design and purpose in God Spinoza has thus removed the break in the principle of the uniformity of the laws of nature.  This is his second act of daring.[28]   

Many earlier thinkers had argued for a separability of the mind and the body.  Wolfson notes that “Spinoza’s insistence upon the complete inseparability of the soul from body has thus removed another break in the homogeneity of nature.  This was his third act of daring.”[29] 

Finally, an insistence upon freedom of the will undercuts the fundamental uniformity of nature.  As Wolfson notes, “each particular thing within the universe, by the eternal necessity of the nature of the universe as a whole of which it is a part, strives to maintain its existence, which is life in the case of living things and motion in the case of non-living beings.  It is this eternal necessity and not will and its free exercise, that makes man’s actions and the actions of non-living beings too, assume a tendency toward a certain end as if guided by an intellect and carried out by a will.  Spinoza’s insistence upon the elimination of freedom of the will from human actions has thus removed another break in the uniformity of the laws of nature.  This is his fourth act of daring.”[30] 

(d) Some Consequences of Spinoza’s definition of ‘substance’:

Beginning with his definition of ‘substance’, Spinoza rigorously deduces (and accepts) the consequences of this concept.  For him, whether one is talking about truth, explanation, or causation, one must fit one true proposition (or question, or effect) into a sequence of others showing that it is a necessary consequence of the earliest stages.  For him, then, causal dependence is treated as a form of logical dependence.  Spinoza believed philosophers should render the universe as a whole intelligible, and the only tool he allowed for this task was deductive reason.  Imagination is his nemesis here—think of when we know (e.g., triangles): we are able to fit the propositions into a larger context.  Where we merely imagine (e.g., imagine the shape), we do not know.  Now consider the idea of the deity—is it fit into other propositions (e.g., omni-etc.).  If not, we do not know.  Error and uncertainty are due to confused formulation according to Spinoza.  Clarity, therefore, is very important.  Indeed, he believed Descartes was not adequately clear!  As Stuart Hampshire notes, Spinoza criticizes Descartes for being unclear in a number of areas:  

...contradictions in Descartes’ notions of Substance, of the relation of Thought and Extension, of the relation between God and the created universe, of Free-Will and Necessity, of Error, and lastly, of the distinction between Intellect and the Imagination.  Descartes seemed to have stopped short in developing his own doctrines to their extreme logical conclusions, partly perhaps because he foresaw some at least of the uncomfortable moral and theological consequences which must ensue; he was a rationalist who not only remained undisturbed within the Catholic Church, but even provided the Church with new armor to protect its essential doctrines against the dangerous implications of the new mathematical physics and the new method in philosophy.[31] 

Thus we have Spinoza’s writing style in The Ethics!  He wants to portray things clearly and expose the logical and deductive consequences of the various propositions so that they could be seen without difficulty.  On this he certainly wanted to be rigorous!   

     According to Spinoza, substance may be considered as active (that is, as cause)—Spinoza then calls it Natura naturans (substance conceived through itself, and, thus, without reference to its attributes and modes).  It can also be considered as passive (that is, as effect, that is, considered as an infinite system of modes)—Spinoza then calls it Natura natura.  While this is a conclusion which Spinoza draws from the definition of substance, Descartes does not accept this consequence—instead he speaks of created substances.  Spinoza’s monism precludes Descartes’ pluralism of substances—indeed, as mentioned above, his monism can allow no distinction between the creator and the created (his conception of a deity is not of a transcendent one).  If there is only one substance, however, what of the apparent multiplicity in the world—what of us?   

     Spinoza believes that the one [necessary] substance has an infinite number of attributes, and an infinite number of modes “under” each attribute.  Thought and extension are two of these attributes, and my current confused mental state and my typing fingers are specific modes of these attributes.  Thus right now there is really only one thing (nature or the deity), but it can be conceived either actively or passively, and in the latter case it has an infinite number of attributes (amongst then thought and extension).  Each attribute, in turn, has an infinitude of modes (thus, both my confused thoughts about Spinoza and my fingers typing out these ramblings). 

     For Spinoza, of course, there is no mind/body problem of interactionism (because there is only one substance), and no problem of representationalism.  Instead, there is a perfect correlation/interrelation between the different attributes and modes (different aspects of the same one thing—like the economic, political, and military histories of the Roman Empire, for example).  For him, then, there is one order which may be conceived in different ways. 

     As I have noted, Descartes defined substance as “an existent thing which requires nothing but itself to exist.”  Spinoza maintains that Descartes’ own views indicate that this definition has as its consequence, for Descartes, that there is only one substance.  Descartes shies away from such a conclusion.  Similarly, in regard to truth we find that Descartes is unclear, and of two minds, where Spinoza is singular.  To say that an idea is true, for Spinoza, can not mean that it corresponds to something external—there is a monism here!  Instead, it means that the proposition fits in with the one deductive structure which there is.  Descartes, on the other hand, seeks an internal criterion of truth amongst ideas and he would maintain that true ideas are true of things external—thus his notions of clarity and distinctness and of correspondence pull in two directions.  As Alasdair MacIntyre notes, we find that Spinoza is not similarly divided:

Descartes is a deeply inconsistent thinker in that he declares clarity and distinctness to be the criteria of truth but still seeks a guarantee that his clear and distinct ideas do in fact correspond to what is the case in the realm of physical bodies.  The inconsistency resides in the attempt both to find a guarantee for the truth of an idea in the idea itself and its relationship with other ideas and yet to mean by ‘truth’ roughly a sort of correspondence to an external reality.  This inconsistency could be avoided either by abandoning the criteria of clarity and distinctness or by rejecting the dualism of thought and extension.  Most empiricist thinkers have chosen to abandon the criteria of clarity and distinctness; Spinoza chose to reject the dualism of thought and extension.[32] 

     Another example of Spinoza’s demand for clarity and of his unyielding commitment to uniformity is his view regarding freedom.  To allow for freedom of the will would be to violate his commitment to a fundamental and inviolable uniformity and to the idea that the universe is strictly intelligible.  His commitment to deductivism engenders a commitment to determinism.  Spinoza defines freedom as follows:

that thing is called free...which exists solely from the necessity of its own nature, and is determined to action by itself alone.  A thing is said to be necessary...or rather constrained...if it is determined by another thing to exist and to ace in a definite and determinate way.[33] 

Properly understood, this means that his deity is free since s/he/it acts solely by the necessity of her/his/its nature.  Human beings, of course, are not free.  In one of his letters he says: I say that a thing is free, which exists and acts solely by the necessity of its own nature.  Thus also God understands Himself and all things freely, because it follows solely from the necessity of His nature, that He should understand all things.  You see I do not place freedom in free decision, but in free necessity.  However, let us descend to created things, which are all determined by external causes to exist and operate in a given determinate manner.  In order that this may be clearly understood, let us conceive a very simple thing.  For instance, a stone receives from the impulsion of an external cause a certain quantity of motion, by virtue of which it continues to move after the impulsion given by the external cause has ceased.  The permanence of the stone’s motion is constrained, not necessary, because it must be defined by the impulsion of an external cause.  What is true of the stone is true of any individual, however complicated its nature, or varied its functions, inasmuch as every individual thing is necessarily determined by some external cause to exist and operate in a fixed and determinate manner.  Further conceive, I beg, that a stone while continuing in motion, should be capable of thinking and knowing, that it is endeavoring, as far as it can, to continue to move.  Such a stone, being conscious merely of its own endeavor and not at all indifferent, would believe itself to be completely free, and would think that it continued in motion solely because of its own wish.  This is that human freedom, which all boast that they possess, and which consists solely in the fact, that men are conscious of their own desire, but they are ignorant of the causes whereby that desire has been determined.”[34] 

     In summary, the following are the important characteristics of substance according to Spinoza:

 it originates and changes in accordance with the laws of its own nature,

it requires nothing but itself in order to exist, and

it explains/causes itself.

The following are the most important consequences of his view of substance:

everything can be explained as the effect of some cause,

there is only one substance,


there is a single causal system,

thought and extension are not separate realms but only different aspects/attributes, and

freedom, properly understood, is acting out of the necessity of one’s nature.   

(e) Spinoza on “Adequate Ideas:”  

Spinoza distinguishes three “levels” of ideas of conception:

(i) “Confused ideas” which are at the level of “images” are passive in character.  Here there is a “mechanical” sort of “Hobbesian” connection between ideas, and repetition of similar experiences can yield “confused general ideas” and even language.  This level of conception cannot generate any real knowledge.  As MacIntyre notes, “...what is founded on sense experience and expressed in ordinary language cannot be genuine knowledge.  In so arguing, Spinoza makes use of Hobbes’ nominalist account of language and knowledge, but for purposes quite other than those for which Hobbes used it.  Spinoza takes this account to be an account not of the rational man’s use of language but of ordinary, prerational, confused discourse.  In criticizing Hobbes, Spinoza is mainly in the right.  Indeed, he is insufficiently radical.  A merely naturalistic, causal account of language and belief omits the rule-governed character of language, for a rule of language is not just a record of regular sequences which a majority of language users happen to follow but at once an expression of standards of meaningfulness and a means of generating a wide range of significant utterances for the person who knows how to utter and to follow them.  An empiricist, nominalist, Hobbesian account of language can give no account of the logical connections in language and makes meaning dependent on reference, while in fact it is necessary to understand reference in the light of a more general doctrine of meaning; and on a Hobbesian account we cannot explain how we can both understand and utter meaningful assertions about what we have never experienced and perhaps never will experience.  But this last consideration, although important for the refutation of Hobbes, is quite alien to Spinoza, whose account of the second level of mind leaves experience behind altogether.”[35] 

(ii) “Adequate ideas” are those wherein one recognizes logical connections between and amongst the ideas.  For Spinoza we can not have an adequate idea without being aware that we have such an idea—in other words such ideas are “self-evident” and exhibit their logical necessity.   

(iii) “Intuitive ideas” are characterized by MacIntyre as follows: “the total system of ideas is the infinita idea Dei (infinite idea of God), and only God possesses a totally adequate idea of himself.  Insofar as I approach the possession of such an idea, I necessarily approach the condition of God and I necessarily become God to some extent.  Hence the aptness of Novalis’ tag about Spinoza as “the God-intoxicated man.”  This third and highest grade of knowledge, which is that of the divine mind, Spinoza calls scientia intuitiva (intuitive knowledge).”[36] 

(f) Spinoza on Morality and Political Philosophy:

For Spinoza, “human bondage[37] arises when we are moved by causes without being aware of, or understanding, these causes.  Freedom arises when we become aware of the causes of our actions.  Here, the changes are no longer seen as coming from without, but are instead seen as coming from within us—they arise as a result of the laws of our nature.  According to MacIntyre,

it is crucial for Spinoza that rational understanding is not merely a means to something else.  It is at once means and end.  The goals which understanding reveals are the goals of freedom and rationality; and these are one and the same.  This freedom, which consists in knowing the causes which move one, and thus making the causes internal and not external to the agent, is of course not only compatible with but also requires complete determinism.  Belief in free decision is among the illusions, the confused ideas, which the free man has discarded.[38] 

     Of course, to speak of individuals being “free” seems oxymoronic in the context of Spinoza’s philosophic system!  Here, of course (as is always the case with Spinoza), we need to be clear as to how he defines ‘freedom’.[39]  Remembering that everything which happens occurs of necessity, and that adequate knowledge involves knowledge of the logical (and necessary) connections between and amongst the things which happen, we can see that as we approach the “intuitive” level of understanding we approach the “intellectual love of the deity” wherein distinctions between subject and object disappear and wherein talk of external compulsion makes no sense. 

(g) On Spinoza’s “Central Inconsistency:”

This brings us back to the criticism which I offered at the beginning of these lectures: “How,” it may be asked, “can one reconcile what I called above “Spinoza’s motivation for philosophizing” with his philosophical system?”  MacIntyre both raises and responds to this question in the following, and as we look at Spinoza’s system, you should consider whether you find this an adequate response:

...a charge of inconsistency, formulated by Stuart Hampshire....Spinoza’s theory of knowledge entails that all mental life is determined.  Yet the announced aim of his philosophy is practical, to correct the understanding, and by attaining the crown of the intellectual life, to attain to beatitude.  But if it is determined, as a physical sequence is determined, that we should think what and as we do, then how can we hope to change and improve our intellectual life?  The inconsistency here is apparent rather than real.  Certainly, unless certain conditions are satisfied, I cannot possibly change intellectually—and in the case of most men these conditions are not satisfied.  Spinoza is clear on this.  But if my mind is determined in a certain way, then it will be determined in such a way that I not only can and do, but also must, improve and correct it.[40]   

As I indicated, as you read Spinoza, you will have to consider whether you find this an adequate response or not. 

 3. Reading Assignment from Spinoza’s Ethics:

The editor’s “Introduction” is strongly recommended![41] 

Part I:

Read complete Part (including the Appendix). 

Part II: Of The Nature and Origin of the Mind:

Read Definitions, Axioms, and Propositions 1-13 (not including the ensuing Lemmas or Postulates), and 31-47;  

Part III: Concerning the Origin and Nature of the Emotions:

Read Preface, Definitions, and Propositions 1-11 (including its Scholium);

Part IV: Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions:

Read Preface, Propositions 1-8, Scholium to Proposition 18, 32-37 (including its two notes), and 62-73 (including its Scholium);

Part V: Of the Power of the Intellect or Of Human Freedom:

Read Preface, Propositions 1-4 (including Scholium), and 32-42 (end). 

[Approximately 92 pages.]   


[1] Cf., Seymour Feldman, “Introduction,” in Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect and Selected Letters, trans. Samuel Shirley, ed. Seymour Feldman (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992), pp. 1-20). 

[2] To understand the situation of Jews in Amsterdam in Spinoza’s day, we must look further back in history.  In 1391 many Spanish Jews were forced to convert to Christianity.  For obvious reasons, over time Spanish authorities became concerned that the “new Christians” were not sincere in their faith, and in 1478 the Spanish Inquisition was created to deal with this problem.  In 1492 Spain expelled all Jews who would not convert to Christianity (in 1497 all Portuguese Jews were forced to convert and not given even the option of exile).  One of the destinations for those who chose exile (or those who clandestinely sought religious freedom) was the Republic of the Netherlands which, in 1609 won independence from Spain after almost one hundred years of struggle. 

[3] A. Robert Caponigri, A History of Western Philosophy: Philosophy from the Renaissance to the Romantic Age (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame, 1963), pp. 197-198. 

[4] Cf., R.H.M. Elwes, “Introduction” [1883], in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza v. 1 [1883], trans. R.H.M. Elwes (N.Y.: Dover, 1955), pp. v-xxxiii, p. xii.  Elwes notes that he was “...excommunicated and anathematized according to the rites of the Jewish church.  A dubious source which I have been unable to confirm suggests that in the twentieth century this expulsion was rescinded. 

[5] Ibid., p. xiii. 

[6] A. Robert Caponigri, A History of Western Philosophy, op. cit., pp. 198.  I am not willing to take the statement by Caponigri as “gospel,” nor do I presume that the oft-repeated accounts of his “lens grinding” and his earning his living this way to be true just because they are oft-repeated.  I do, believe, however, that Caponigri's statement should serve as a caution—where the sources all agree, one reason for it might well be that writers simply adopt what has been said as if it were the truth.  Some writers go so far as to say that a cause of Spinoza's death is the effects of his life-long employment.  I believe that it is likely that his lens grinding was not for earning a living. 

[7] Seymour Feldman, “Introduction,” op. cit., p. 4. 

[8] A. Robert Caponigri, A History of Western Philosophy, op. cit., p. 199. 

[9] R.H.M. Elwes, “Introduction,” op. cit., pp. vi-vii.  If this seems excessive, consult Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary [1697, 1702], trans. and ed. R.H. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991), pp. 288-388, esp. pp. 288-293. 

[10] Time Magazine, July 28, 1997, p. 54. 

[11] R.H.M. Elwes, “Introduction,” op. cit., p. xxii. 

[12] Benedict Spinoza, On the Improvement of the Understanding [posthumously], in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza [1883] v. 2, trans. R.H.M. Elwes, op. cit., p. 5.  This passage is also included in Samuel Shirley’s translation, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, in The Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters, op. cit., pp. 234-235.  Emphasis has been added to the passage twice. 

[13] Ibid., p. 6.  In the Shirley translation, the passage appears on pp. 235-236.  Emphasis added to the passage. 

[14] Thus, a criticism of Spinoza will be that if his “system” is correct, then the effort to develop, master, and teach it becomes without point. 

[15] Spinoza, Selected Letters, “Letter 2,” in Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters, trans. Samuel Shirley, op. cit., p. 264.  Emphasis added to the passage three times. 

[16] Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy v. 4 (Garden City: Image, 1963), p. 218.  Emphasis added to the passage. 

[17] Ibid., pp. 214-215. 

[18] This way of looking at Spinoza’s system is suggested, among many places, by Martin Hollis in his “Introduction” to the selections from Spinoza in his The Light of Reason (London: Fontana/Collins, 1973), p. 200.  Of course, many other writers make this interpretive suggestion. 

[19] It would be interesting to conjecture what Spinoza’s system would have been like had he had available the notion of statistical laws—the notion of laws which governs the whole early modern period, however, is one which speaks of them in deterministic terms.  Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1990) provides a wonderful introductory account of the beginnings of the notions of non-deterministic laws in the 19th century. 

[20] Benedict Spinoza, Theologico-Political Treatise [1670, anonymously] in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza v. 1, op. cit., p. 60. 

[21] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Spinoza,” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy v.7, ed. Paul Edwards (N.Y.: Macmillan, 1967), pp. 530-541, p. 533. 

[22] Ibid. 

[23] Rene Descartes, The Principles of Philosophy [1644] Part I, Principle 51, in The Philosophical Works of Descartes v. 1, trans. E.S. Haldane and G.R.T. Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1969), pp. 239-240.  Emphasis has been added to the passage. 

[24] Harry Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes of His Reasoning [1934] v. I (N.Y.: Schocken, 1969), p. 53. 

[25] Spinoza’s Correspondence as collected in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza v. 2, op. cit., p. 291 (Letter XV, Spinoza to Oldenberg). 

[26] Martin Hollis, “Introduction,” op. cit., p. 20. 

[27] Harry Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza [1934] v. II, op. cit., p.333.  Emphasis has been added to the citation. 

[28] Ibid., pp. 334-335. 

[29] Ibid., p. 336. 

[30] Ibid., pp. 338-339. 

[31] Stuart Hampshire, Spinoza (Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1967), pp. 22-23.  Cf., also, p. 153. 

[32] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Spinoza,” op. cit., p. 537. 

[33] Benedict Spinoza, The Ethics, Part. I, Definition VII, in Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters, trans. Samuel Shirley, op. cit., p.  31. 

[34] Spinoza’s Correspondence, as collected in The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza v. 2, trans. R.H.M. Elwes, op. cit., Letter 62 (Spinoza to John Rieuwerts), p. 390.  In the Shirley translation (Baruch Spinoza: Ethics, Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, and Selected Letters, op. cit., this passage appears on pp. 285-286. 

[35] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Spinoza,” op. cit., pp. 536-537. 

[36] Ibid., p. 537.  Emphasis added to passage. 

[37] Part IV of his Ethics is entitled “Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions.” 

[38] Ibid., p. 540. 

[39] Philosophers use single quotes to surround a word when they are mentioning it rather than using it.  For example, in the sentence “‘Long’ is a short word,” the word ‘long’ is mentioned (discussed) while the word ‘short’ is used! 

[40] Alasdair MacIntyre, “Spinoza,” op. cit., p. 538.  Emphasis added to the passage twice.  A reasonable reading of this passage, however, suggests that rather than rendering the contradiction “merely apparent,” MacIntyre puts his finger, once again, right on the problem.  MacIntyre’s “my mind is determined in a certain way,” and, of course, for Spinoza this antecedent is clearly actualized, and his “then it will be determined in such a way that I not only can and, but also must, improve and correct it” suggest that there is no room for any “endeavor,” “practical activity,” “purpose,” or “goal.”  Thus when we reexamine Spinoza’s statements about the motive for philosophizing, we seem left with “Hampshire’s” criticism! 

[41] Another excellent introduction to both Spinoza’s thought and his life is to be found in R.H.M. Elwes’s “Introduction” to his translation of The Chief Works of Benedict de Spinoza [1883] v. 1, op. cit., pp. v-xxxiii. 

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Last revised on: 09/26/2012