Spinoza

Spinoza

[spi-noh-zuh]
Spinoza, Baruch or Benedict, 1632-77, Dutch philosopher, b. Amsterdam.

Spinoza's Life

He belonged to the community of Jews from Spain and Portugal who had fled the Inquisition. Educated in the orthodox Jewish manner, he also studied Latin and the works of René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and other writers of the period, and also had a thorough grounding in scholastic theology and philosophy. His independence of thought led to his excommunication from the Jewish group in 1656; at about that time he abandoned the Hebrew form of his name, Baruch, for the Latin form, Benedict.

Until about 1660, Spinoza lived in or near Amsterdam, and afterward he lived in Rijnsburg, Voorburg, and The Hague. He was a lens grinder of great skill, but this activity was probably more related to his scientific interests than to any economic necessity. With his needs largely provided for by a series of grants, pensions, and bequests, he lived modestly, devoting much of his time to the development of his philosophy. Spinoza became known in spite of his retiring mode of life; he had wide correspondence and was visited by other philosophers. In 1673, he was offered a professorship at Heidelberg, but he elected to retain his peaceful life and especially his independence of thought. He died of tuberculosis, apparently aggravated by his inhaling glass dust from lens grinding. Through Gotthold Lessing, Johann Gottfried von Herder, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Spinoza influenced German idealism. During his lifetime and for a period afterward, however, his pantheism was regarded as blasphemous, which is one reason why most of his writing was published after his death.

Spinoza's Works

His major works, virtually all of which are available in English translation, include a rewording (1663) of part of Descartes's work, A Treatise on Religious and Political Philosophy (1670, the only example of his own thought published in his lifetime), and his important Ethics, probably finished in 1665 but published posthumously (1677). His Opera Posthuma (1677) also include his Political Treatise, Treatise on the Improvement of Understanding, Letters, and Hebrew Grammar. He began a translation of the Hebrew Bible and was one of the first to raise questions of higher criticism of the Bible.

Metaphysics

Spinoza's philosophy is deductive, rational, and monist. He shares with Descartes an intensely mathematical appreciation of the universe: Things make sense when understood in relation to a total structure; truth, like geometry, follows from first principles with a logic accessible and evident to man's mind. Whereas for Descartes mind and body are different substances, Spinoza holds that the two are different aspects of a single substance, which he called alternately God and Nature. Just as the mind is not substantially alien to the body, so Nature is not the product or agency of a supernatural God. The universe is a single substance, capable of an infinity of attributes, but known through two of them: physical "extension" and "thought." God is not the creator of a Nature beyond himself; God is Nature in its fullness.

Spinoza's rationalism, unlike that of later idealists, does not proceed at the expense of empirical observation. "Adequate ideas" are a coherent logical association of physical experiences. When ideas are confused or contradictory it is not because they are false (in the sense of contrary to fact) but because they are incomplete or improperly related to the totality of experience.

Ethics

Spinoza's ethics proceed from a premise similar to that of Hobbes—that men call "good" whatever gives them pleasure—but they reach very different conclusions. Human beings, indeed all of Nature, share a common drive for self-preservation, the conatus sese conservandi. By this drive all individuals seek to maintain the power of their being, and in this sense virtue and power are one. But in Spinoza's system power is discovered to be a knowledge of necessity. Powerful, or virtuous, persons act because they understand why they must; others act because they cannot help themselves.

To be free is to be guided by the law of one's own nature (which in Spinoza's rational universe is never at variance with the law of another nature); bondage consists in being moved by causes of which we are unaware because our ideas are confused. Another important feature of Spinoza's ethical system is his view of the intellect as active. He rejects the distinction between reason and will that assumes that ideas can be passively entertained. All thinking is action, and all action has its accompaniment in thought. What accounts for action is not an agency (the will) beyond the intellect, but ideas. Ideas are active and move us to act; an absence of action may be accounted an absence of insight: knowledge, virtue, and power are one.

Political Philosophy

Politically, Spinoza and Hobbes again share assumptions about the social contract: Right derives from power, and the contract binds only as long as it is to one's advantage. The important difference between the two men is their understanding of the ends of the system: for Hobbes advantage lies in satisfying as many desires as possible, for Spinoza advantage lies in an escape from those desires through understanding. Put another way, Hobbes does not imagine a community of individuals whose desires can be consistently satisfied, so repression is always necessary; Spinoza can imagine such a community and such consistent satisfaction, so in his political and religious thought the notion of freedom, especially freedom of inquiry, is basic.

Bibliography

See biographies by S. Nadler (1999) and R. Goldstein (2006); H. A. Wolfson, The Philosophy of Spinoza (2 vol., 1934; repr. 1969); G. H. R. Parkinson, Spinoza's Theory of Knowledge (1954, repr. 1964); H. Allison, Benedict de Spinoza (1975); S. Hampshire, Spinoza (1975); L. Strauss, Spinoza's Critique of Religion (1982).

Hebrew Baruch Spinoza

(born Nov. 24, 1632, Amsterdam—died Feb. 21, 1677, The Hague) Dutch Jewish philosopher, a major exponent of 17th-century rationalism. His father and grandfather had fled persecution by the Inquisition in Portugal. His early interest in new scientific and philosophical ideas led to his expulsion from the synagogue in 1656, and he thereafter made his living as a lens grinder and polisher. His philosophy represents a development of and reaction to the thought of René Descartes; many of his most striking doctrines are solutions to difficulties created by Cartesianism. He found three unsatisfactory features in Cartesian metaphysics: the transcendence of God, mind-body dualism, and the ascription of free will both to God and to human beings. To Spinoza, those doctrines made the world unintelligible, since it was impossible to explain the relation between God and the world or between mind and body or to account for events occasioned by free will. In his masterpiece, Ethics (1677), he constructed a monistic system of metaphysics and presented it in a deductive manner on the model of the Elements of Euclid. He was offered the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg but declined it, seeking to preserve his independence. His other major works are the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) and the unfinished Tractatus Politicus.

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Hebrew Baruch Spinoza

(born Nov. 24, 1632, Amsterdam—died Feb. 21, 1677, The Hague) Dutch Jewish philosopher, a major exponent of 17th-century rationalism. His father and grandfather had fled persecution by the Inquisition in Portugal. His early interest in new scientific and philosophical ideas led to his expulsion from the synagogue in 1656, and he thereafter made his living as a lens grinder and polisher. His philosophy represents a development of and reaction to the thought of René Descartes; many of his most striking doctrines are solutions to difficulties created by Cartesianism. He found three unsatisfactory features in Cartesian metaphysics: the transcendence of God, mind-body dualism, and the ascription of free will both to God and to human beings. To Spinoza, those doctrines made the world unintelligible, since it was impossible to explain the relation between God and the world or between mind and body or to account for events occasioned by free will. In his masterpiece, Ethics (1677), he constructed a monistic system of metaphysics and presented it in a deductive manner on the model of the Elements of Euclid. He was offered the chair of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg but declined it, seeking to preserve his independence. His other major works are the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) and the unfinished Tractatus Politicus.

Learn more about Spinoza, Benedict de with a free trial on Britannica.com.

Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (French title: Spinoza: Philosophie practique) is a 1970 philosophical booklet by Gilles Deleuze concerned with the explanation of Spinoza's philosophy of The Ethics. It was Deleuze's last work published before his important collaboration with Felix Guattari on Anti-Oedipus and it presents the formal Spinozist environment in which his later ideas are situated, to such an extent that it includes a lengthy index of main concept definitions. Deleuze makes particular effort to relate Spinoza's ethical philosophy to the writings of Nietzsche and Blyenbergh, a grain broker who corresponded with Spinoza in the first half of 1665 and questioned the ethics of his concept of evil.

In 1988, this booket was translated into English by Robert Hurley and published by City Lights Books.

Key Concepts

Spinoza's Evolution: Nietzsche

The kinship of Spinoza and Nietzsche is made quite clear in this book, but there is also a historical line of connection between the two that Deleuze discusses elsewhere: "this line passes through a form that we often call Man. Spinoza is prior to that form, and Nietzsche sees beyond it. What they share, on this line, is a philosophy of forces that compose such forms and shape the passions of Man."1 Throughout the text Deleuze makes constant reference to Nietzsche's poetry suggesting a similarity of subject matter and historical timeframe. The subject is the rational mechanics of Spinoza's Ethics which is very closely situated to the political psychology of his contemporaries such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

Decomposition and Composition

Deleuze uses Spinoza's example from the Hebrew Bible when Adam is with God in the Garden of Eden to question the nature of the Forbidden Apple. In Spinoza's analysis the "Apple's nature is to decompose the nature of Adam, much like a poison."2 When a body encounters another body, or an idea another idea, it happens that the two form a more powerful whole, and sometimes one decomposes the other, destroying the cohesion of its parts. In this way we come to relate to foreign bodies differently in the anticipation of their affects on our body. "These determinative affections are necessarily the cause of the consciousness of the conatus.".3 Consciousness experiences joy or sadness depending on whether the body encountered enters into composition with us, or tends to decompose us. Consciousness is transitive, it is the continual awareness of the passage from these totalities. It is not a property of the whole; it has only an informational value, and the information is necessarily confused and distorted by affections.

The Ethics vs. Morality and the rule of three

Once again Deleuze uses Spinoza's example from the Bible. When Adam hears God's word, he understands these words as the expression of a prohibition. They refer to a fruit that will poison Adam if he eats it. It is a concept of a complex Evil that "will determine the parts of Adam's body to enter into new relations that no longer accord with his own essence". But because Adam is ignorant of causes, he thinks that God morally forbids him something, whereas God only reveals the natural consequence of ingesting the fruit. In this way, Ethics replaces Morality, which always refers existence to transcendental values .i.e. God's judgment . With Spinoza's Ethics, the opposition of values (Good-Evil) is supplanted by the qualitative difference of modes of existence (good-bad). However, this re-formulation of psychological consciousness is illusory and it amounts to a very similar compromised situation. This is because if consciousness is content to wait for and take in effects, consciousness misapprehends all of Nature. Deleuze points out here that "all one needs in order to moralize is to fail to understand [...] If we do not understand the rule of three, we will apply it, we will adhere to it, as a duty." Law, whether moral or ethical, does not provide us with any knowledge; it makes nothing known. At worst it prevents the formation of knowledge. At best, it prepares for knowledge and makes it possible. Deleuze sees an elaborate evolution of ontology, which he calls a long error whereby the command of God is historically mistaken for something to be understood, obedience for knowledge itself and Being for Fiat.

Endnotes

  • (Introduction of the English edition)
  • (Chap.1)
  • (Ethics, III. definition of desire)
  • (Chap.1)

See also

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