Saturday, March 24, 2007


This past week I read Betraying Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein's excellent exploration into Spinoza's philosophical system and the Jewish experience, historical and personal, that, she argues, formed his secret motivation to develop his system. I was wary of reading it yet without first having read some Spinoza, but Mark Thwaite sealed it for me the other week with his brief Book Depository review in which he said: "You will not read a better introduction to this still vital thinker". Well, a good introduction was just what I wanted, so I decided to read it immediately. I'm glad I did; this is a fascinating book, and happens to fit in quite nicely with my recent thinking on questions of reason and religion. Goldstein clearly and entertainingly explains much of Spinoza's metaphysical system, while also providing an interesting historical overview of the problems of Spanish-Portugese Jewry (in the period of more tolerant Moslem rule, supplanted by intolerant Catholics, and eventually the Spanish Inquistion), including, of course, those who fled Spain and Portugal for Amsterdam, like Spinoza's own family did before his birth.

Spinoza's basic question of his teachers--why did God do as he did? The answer, because God is good, is unsatisfactory. It begs the question, because it really locates the reason outside of God. If there is a "good" that God does, then the explanation of God is irrelevant. If things are "good" merely because God does them, then he may have just as easily done something else, so that God in this sense is arbitrary. So it thus does no good to appeal to a transcendent God. But Spinoza was not "atheist". He believed in God as immanent in nature, rather than transcendent. And nature makes sense, is logical. And human morality is immanent in human nature (one might argue, now, that it is a natural implication of evolution), rather than something imposed from without by a transcendent being.

Goldstein's explanation of the question of personal identity was engrossing. We are necessarily engaged in the project of being who we are. Our commitment to this project is explained only by the fact that we are who we are, and no one else. As Goldstein puts it at one point (p. 160):
There is an absurdity in even asking for a reason as to why we should care about ourselves. Identity itself explains the self-concern. We don't require any persuasion in taking a special interest in what will befall us. The persuasion we require is to take an interest in others as well. That's the business of ethics, and the business, too, of The Ethics.
Our personal involvement in the project of ourself opens us up to the range of emotions (love, anger, etc) that affect our ability to make judgments, judgments which impact the viability of the ongoing project. Spinoza would have us step outside of ourselves, to view ourselves and the world from the vantage point of the "View from Nowhere". From here, "the fact of who one is within the world seems to disappear". Spinoza recommends we take this view "as the means of attaining salvation":
Our very essence, our conatus, will lead us, if only we will think it all through, to a vision of reality that, since it is the truth, is in our interests to attain, and will effect such a difference in our sense of ourselves that we will have trouble even returning to the prephilosophical attachment to ourselves. It will appear almost too contingent to be true that one just happens to be that thing that one is. (p. 162)
When we are thus saved we will be able to face the reality of our own deaths:
Our inability to realistically contemplate our own demise accounts [...] for the otherwise incomprehensible power that the superstitious religions exert on us. Only reason, as rigorous as we can muster it up, can truly save us, can both give us the truth and also deliver us from our primal fear of the truth. (p.163)
I think all of this is fascinating, though I'm sure I'm misrepresenting something. Spinoza's "reason" does not appear to be identical to what we usually mean by "reason" today, though they are related, since for him the use of pure reason leads to a blessed state, a spiritual state. I could be misunderstanding something. Anyway, I don't want to say too much more about the ideas here, for fear of further misrepresenting them, but I look forward to actually reading Spinoza's own proofs. In any event, I highly recommend Goldstein's book. (Incidentally, I also recommend her excellent novel, The Mind-Body Problem.)

There was one aspect of Betraying Spinoza that disappointed--the epilogue. The subtitle of the book is "The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity", so throughout my reading I was waiting for Goldstein to explain how Spinoza's ideas indeed "gave us modernity". The "explanation" that finally comes seems sort of weak. In the epilogue, she mentions that a few years after Spinoza's death, John Locke moved to Amsterdam, where he made friends "chosen from among the same freethinking members of dissenting Protestant groups as Spinoza's small group of loyal confidants." Then she says this:
Though Locke's strong empiricist tendencies, persuading him to accept probability rather than certainty as justificatory grounds for beliefs, would have disinclined him to read a grandly metaphysical work such as The Ethics, in other ways he was deeply receptive to Spinoza's ideas, most particularly to the rationalist's well thought argument for political and religious tolerance and the necessity of the separation of church and state. (p.262)
Locke returned to England, and wrote on many topics, including in defense of religious liberty. His writings influenced the founding fathers who gained American independence from England, and wrote the U.S. Constitution. Goldstein quotes Thomas Jefferson, etc. I find this disappointing not because political and religious tolerance are not crucial (they are), nor do I mean to dispute the importance of the separation of church and state in general, or to those who founded this country. I find it disappointing because Goldstein spends much of the book talking about the very aspects of Spinoza's system that would not have appealed to someone like John Locke, and then proceeds to forge that link between Spinoza and Locke based on the question of religious liberty, seemingly to force the point about modernity. Two things strike me about this. The first is a question: was it necessarily Spinoza's influence in particular on Locke with respect to the matter of tolerance, or was the still relative tolerance of Amsterdam, compared to other European cities at the time, itself perhaps an important or even determining factor? I don't so much doubt the importance of Spinoza's writings on tolerance, or that they affected Locke. But she made this connection rather facilely, I thought.

Second, it seems to me that Spinoza's metaphysical project, if I come close to understanding Goldstein's explanation of it, has not been incorporated into the main current of modern Western culture (Western philosophy perhaps--I am in no position to judge). I kept waiting for Goldstein to show how it has, but she doesn't. This is the penultimate paragraph in Betraying Spinoza:
His determination to think out the tragedy of his community led him to a unique system of thought. Within this system he sought to demonstrate that the truths of ethics have their source in the human condition and nowhere else. He sought to prove that our common human nature reveals why we must treat one another with utmost dignity, and, too, that our common human nature is itself transformed in our knowing of it, so that we become only more like one another as we think our way toward radical objectivity.
Spinoza's system is thus inspiring, and spiritual in its way, and seems to bear little to no resemblance to general ideas about human nature in common currency in the world today. In this sense, Spinoza seems to still be considerably ahead of our time, as he was ahead of his own.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and tempting to get this book. An interesting angle on such questioning of God, and the position of the man who does the questioning by Meister Eckhart when he wrote, "Simple people imagine that they should see God as if he stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in knowledge." Though I suppose the getting to this awareness, if it indeed is the truth of being as perhaps Spinoza is also saying, the next issue. I'll pretend to be a bit more familiar with Dante's Inferno than I am, but reason while not denigrated, could only bring one so far, the final stage being a leap of faith/self-surrender/lay down all thoughts, surrender to the Void, etc. I suppose it's too complex a question to reasonably expect a concise answer but does Spinoza consider that reason itself works the oracle? Though as I think you suggest, the entire intellectual mindset of Spinoza's time considerably different to our own; where the foremost scientist would as a matter of course be an alchemist or occultist explorer such as Newton, and where contrary to our mindsets, the mind of the scientist would seemingly be intimately connected with his experiments. We seem much more fragmented in our understanding of the wholeness of being.

Anonymous said...


Mark from here ...

Great post. Thanks for it. I'll respond fully over on RSB later today, hopefully.

One point I didn't make (because I only read the book after finishing Goldstein) was how much "Betraying Spinoza" owes to Steven Nadler's excellent "Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind". If you want more on Spinoza's cherem, go here next.


Richard said...

Thanks, Mark.

And I appreciate the tip on Nadler's book.

Anonymous said...

Hey again Richard,

I'm thinking, with reference to Spinoza's Modernity, that the work of Negri and Warren Montag might interest you -- I'll be saying more on this on ReadySteadyBook in a week or so ...


Richard said...

Good to know, Mark. I look forward to your post on it.

Anonymous said...

Concerning Goldstein's hints to the influence of Spinoza on Locke, I think they can be substantiated by a huge amount of crypto-quotations of Spinoza in Locke's texts. Already in his Oxford-time Locke was fascinated by Spinoza's first book and first letters, as he wrote in his notebooks. And later he made abstracts from the Theological-political treatise and from the Ethics. Empiricism was a pillar of Spinoza's philosophy too. See f.i. prop. 26 of the second part of his Ethica: "Mens humana nullum corpus externum ut actu existens percipit, nisi per ideas affectionum sui corporis". Locke's 'consent-theory' was also the basis of Spinoza's political theory. Rebecca Goldstein is right with her suggestion that Locke was moving on the path of Spinoza. Those scholars who are interested in the relationship between Spinoza and Locke could ask me for sending them my rough draft on "Apple and worm. An Essay on Locke's Philosophy as a Disguised Spinozism"