Oxford Companion to Philosophy. [Page 845]
Spinoza, Baruch (or Benedictus) (1632-77)
Dutch Jewish philosopher. Spinoza’s family were Portuguese Judaizing Marranos (forced converts to Christianity living secretly as Jews). His father had emigrated to Amsterdam to avoid persecution, where he built up a successful merchant business. Spinoza's mother died when he was 6 and his father when he was 22. Spinoza continued for a time as a respected member of his synagogue, running the family business with his brother. However, a crisis arose when he would not renounce the heterodox opinions he had been heard to voice, and, after unsuccessful efforts to buy his silence, he was cursed and excommunicated from the Jewish community. Opinions differ over why such strong action was taken against him. One view is that the peculiar religious position of the Marranos had encouraged scepticism and laxity in Jewish practice and that the rabbis felt that they must affirm the religious unity of their community (there were some other similar 'herems'). Others emphasize the need to reassure the city fathers that the Jewish community was committed to the same basic theism as Christianity.
A few years after the ban Spinoza (with the family business wound up) left Amsterdam and lived for some years in Rijnsburg, near Leiden, lodging with a member of the Collegiant sect, with which he was developing an association. After four years he moved to Voorburg and then to The Hague, living in modest lodgings. (The houses at Rijnsburg and The Hague now contain the library and offices of the Dutch Spinoza society, the Vereniging het Spinozahuis.) He was a skilled optical lens grinder and some of his income came from this, though he also accepted some small financial support from his followers. He acquired international fame, and, with the publication of the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus in 1670, notoriety. Among his friends and frequent correspondents was Henry Oldenburg, Secretary of the Royal Society in London. Oldenburg and some other Christians may have hoped that Spinoza would lead that mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity which their millenarian beliefs led them to expect. However, Spinoza conceived Jesus as at most the last of the great Jewish prophets.
Spinoza only published two books in his lifetime: The Principles of Descartes’s Philosophy (written initially for a young man he was informally tutoring, published 1663) and the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus. The latter was published anonymously at Amsterdam, though for reasons of prudence with a falsely tided frontispiece and binding. It soon became explosively infamous and Spinoza, once he became known as the author, much reviled for it.
It is part biblical study, part political treatise. Its overriding goal is to recommend full freedom of thought and religious practice, subject to behavioural conformity with the Jews of the land. As virtually the first examination of the Scriptures (primarily the Pentateuch) as historical documents, reflecting the intellectual limitations of their time, and of problematic authorship, it opened the so-called higher criticism. What is important, claims Spinoza, is the Bible's moral message; its implied science and metaphysics can stand only as imaginative adjuncts for teaching ethics to the multitude. Though Spinoza unobtrusively identifies *God and *nature, one of the opinions leading to his excommunication (as he was already doing in his work in progress on the Ethics), he writes in a seemingly more orthodox vein, even while denying the genuinely supernatural character of reported miracles. It is much debated whether this shows that those who now read the Ethics in too secular a way are misunderstanding it, or whether Spinoza was adapting his presentation not indeed to the masses, but to conventionally religious intellectuals of his time, among whom he wished to promote tolerant liberal ideals. The study of the Bible is designed to show that there is nothing in it which should sanction intolerance within Judaism or Christianity, or between them, and to illustrate certain political facts by reflections on Jewish history, such as the desirable relations between Church and State. Spinoza’s political theory owes a good deal to Hobbes, utilizing similarly the idea of a *social contract, but deriving a more liberal and democratic lesson from it. Spinoza was personally committed to the republican policies of the De Witt brothers in Amsterdam, was outraged at their murder, and was against the royalist ambitions of the House of Orange.
Shortly after his death Opera Postuma was published by his friends, containing the Ethics, one of the major and most influential works of Western philosophy, the unfinished Tractatus Politicus, some lesser works, and some important correspondence. So notorious had Spinoza's opinions become that they still only gave the name of the author as B.D.S. (Two other works have come to light since.) Spinoza has been more variously interpreted than most philosophers. Perhaps this only shows his system's resemblance to the universe it mirrors. A less contentious explanation is that, depending on the reader's starting-point, it may come either as a call to abandon traditional Jewish or Christian religious belief and practice, or as a revitalization of the conception of a God who seemed to be dying. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries he was widely regarded with horror as a scarcely covert atheist, in the nineteenth as a precursor of absolute *idealism. Some twentieth-century thinkers interpret him, rather onesidedly, as a precursor of a *'cognitive science' interpretation of mind, others almost as a logical atomist, while others again hail his *pantheism as providing a metaphysical [Page 846] foundation for 'deep ecology'. Among the many very different thinkers who have either regarded themselves as, in a broad sense, Spinozists, or as strongly influenced by him, are Goethe, Lessing, Heine, Nietzsche, George Eliot, Einstein, Freud, Bertrand Russell, and George Santayana, while Hegel saw Spinoza's philosophy as a particularly important dialectical stage on the road to his own absolute idea. Historically, Spinoza was strongly influenced by Descartes, though the upshot of his thought is markedly different, and, to a debatable degree, by various Jewish thinkers.
Spinoza's great work, the Ethics, is presented as a deductive system in the manner of Euclid. Each of its five parts ('Concerning God'; 'On the Nature and Origin of the Mind'; 'Concerning the Origin and Nature of the Emotions'; 'Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions'; 'Of the Power of the Intellect, or of Human Freedom') opens with a set of definitions and axioms and is followed by a series of theorems proved upon the basis of what precedes them, with more informal remarks in scholia and appendices.
In part 1 Spinoza proves (understand henceforth: or intends to prove) that there is only one substance (in the sense of genuinely individual thing with an intelligibility not derivative from that of other things), and this answers both to the traditional meanings of 'God' (for example, its existence follows from its essence) and of 'nature' (that of which the laws of nature are the operations). (Thus God did not create but is nature.) Spinoza derives this claim by pushing the traditional notions of an individual substance to its limit in a complex argument roughly as follows.
1. First we must note some of his opening definitions: 'By *substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e. that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed.' 'By *attribute I understand what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence.' 'By *mode I understand the affections of a substance or that which is in another thing through which it is also conceived.' 'By God I understand a being absolutely infinite, i.e. a substance consisting of an infinity of attributes, of which each one expresses an eternal and infinite essence.'
2. After certain initial moves Spinoza proves proposition 5, 'In the universe there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute', by considering what could possibly distinguish two such substances. It could not be their affections or modes, because they must be different in order to have different affections (just as two men could not be distinguished by the fact that one was angry and the other not, for this possibility rests upon their being different men—compare some recent arguments for bare particulars). However, on the only alternative, that they are distinguished by their natures or attributes, they would not be instances of what is denied. Why Spinoza did not consider the apparently obvious objection (noted by Leibniz) that they might share one but not all their attributes has been debated. The solution recommended here is that, since an attribute is simply a way of conceiving the essence or nature of a substance, any shared attribute implies a shared essence which in turn implies the same set of attributes as ways of conceiving it.
3. The next crucial proposition (part 1, proposition 11) affirms the necessary existence of God as we have seen him (or it—to say 'her' would be wildly anachronistic) defined. Spinoza's *ontological argument for this is derived with peculiar abruptness from proposition 7, according to which existence appertains to the nature of substance (and so must pertain to the divine substance), this being derived in turn from the impossibility, established in previous propositions, of one substance producing another (because such causation requires a community of nature that is impossible granted that two substances cannot share their nature). One might think that this only shows that if a substance exists at all, then it must exist of its own nature, and does not tell us which if any substances do exist. However, the underlying thought seems to be that any coherently conceivable substance (with a possibly actualizable essence) must exist, since the conception of it cannot be derived from anything but its own existing self. In the case of that which could only exist as the modification of something else, the case is different, for the conception of it may be derived from the conception of that of which it is a possible modification. Thus (my examples) the conception of Horatio's bravery in some non-actual situation may be derived from a proper conception of Horatio himself, and the conception of a unicorn may be derived from the conception of the universal space within which it could figure as a possible form. But in the case of a coherently conceivable substance, such as God, there can be no such derivation, and its coherent conceivability must derive from its own actual being. (Leibniz's claim that the ontological argument should first establish the coherent conceivability of God is apt here. In fact in the course of the first of two further proofs Spinoza does try to show this.)
4. Since a perfect substance exists possessing all attributes, and since there cannot be more than one substance possessing the same attribute, it follows that this perfect substance is the only substance, since there are no attributes left for any other substance. Thus (part 1, proposition 14) 'Except God, no substance can be or be conceived.' We must continue in even less detail. All ordinary finite things are modes of this one substance, that is, stand to it as, say, an emotion pertains to a person or a movement to a moving thing. Thus the [Page 847] existence of a person consists in the one substance being in a certain state, just as the existence of my anger consists in my being in a certain state. (This traditional reading of Spinoza is sometimes challenged.) In effect, my anger is the mode (Spinoza says'affection') of a mode.
Some commentators resist the usual idea that for Spinoza God simply is the universe, insisting that he is rather the one substance in which all natural phenomena inhere. But though we should distinguish between the essence-and-attributes-of-God and his modes, that still leaves all natural phenomena as his states just as my moods are mine. However, certainly God is not merely the physical universe for Spinoza. (Though that God was, among other things, physical, was, indeed, one of his most shocking claims.) For the essence of God is expressed in an infinite number of attributes of which physical extension is just one. Thus the physical world is God's body, God in his physical aspect, rather than the totality of what God is. Humans, as it happens, only know of one other of these attributes, namely thought. God or the universe is thus both an infinite physical thing and an infinite thinking thing (as well as an infinite number of other infinite things the nature of which is hidden from us).
The one substance and its modes exhaust the things which are. But where does that leave the essence and attributes of the one substance and the essences-of-its-modes (of which Spinoza also makes much)? On the face of it, these seem additional sorts of entity. However, this is not really so.
(i) The essence of a finite thing (that is, a finite mode) is simply the thing itself (or rather that core thereof which must endure so long as the thing exists at all) qua possibility whose actualization constitutes it an existent or whose non-actualization leaves it merely as something which might exist (so far at least as the general character of the universe goes).
The essence of the one substance is similarly one with the substance itself, that core of the universe which must endure so long as anything does and of which all finite things are passing states. However, there is no question of its ever having or having had status as a mere possibility and it is a necessarily actualized essence. That something is possible but non-existent must be a fact about something which does exist. The nonexistence of unicorns is the fact that nature has no place for them, but there is nothing which could have no place for Nature, that is, the one divine substance. There is an implied further proof of God's existence here.
(ii) Much discussion has centred on how Spinoza conceived the relation between the essence of the one substance and its attributes. The 'subjective' interpretation regards them as the subjective appearances to a mind of some unknown ultimate noumenal essence.
Modem commentators mostly prefer the objective interpretation according to which they are genuine constituents of the essence rather than a veil behind which it hides. There are difficulties in both accounts, both as interpretation and as philosophy. This writer holds the intermediate position that each attribute is one of various alternative ways of conceiving the essence correctly. (Among other reasons for this are the justification we have seen that it provides of part 1, proposition 5.) Thus the world can be truly seen either as a physical system (the attribute of extension) or as a mental system, that is, a system of ideas (the attribute of thought) while there are other in principle possible ways of seeing it (the unknown attributes) beyond human mental c apacity.
In short, neither the essence of substance nor its attributes are items in addition to substance itself.
Qua system of thought God, or Nature, is the idea of itself qua physical system, and every finite thing, as mode of the one substance, is both a physical thing and the idea of that physical thing, that is, that component of God's mind which is his awareness of it. Thus every genuine unit in physical nature, animal, plant, or ultimate particle, has its mental counterpart, that is, may be conceived not as a physical thing but as the idea of a physical thing. The human mind is the idea of the human body (of how it functions as a whole, rather than of its every detail). Here again commentators interpret Spinoza somewhat divergently, but most agree that this implies that every physical thing has some kind of sentience. However, it is only in so far as a physical thing has a certain wholeness to it that its mental counterpart constitutes a mind with much distinctness from the rest of cosmic mentality.
Every finite thing has a built in conatus (striving or endeavour) to persist in its own being, that is, to keep its own essence actualized (in fact, the conatus simply is the essence with its own tendency to persist) until it is defeated in so doing by external causes. This produces self-preserving behaviour suited, to the extent that it can internally register them, to current circumstances. The human mind-body is especially apt in such registration, which constitutes its own ideas of its current environment. (Its ideas of its environment are part of God's current idea of it as affected by this.) Pleasure and pain are the mental analogues of an increase or decrease in the effectiveness of its conatus, differing in character with the thing's essence. Spinoza defines all the emotions in terms of pleasure, pain, and the basic conatus they manifest. He aims to study human psychology dispassionately 'just as if it were an investigation into lines, planes, or bodies', in contrast to those 'who prefer to abus or deride the emotions and actions of men rather than to understand them'. For only by understanding ourselves can we win freedom in Spinoza's sense.
Spinoza is an uncompromising determinist. [Page 848] Everything that happens is determined by two factors, in the manner of Hempel’s account of scientific explanation, the standing nature of God, that is, the laws of nature, and previous conditions likewise determined back through infinite time. There is no human 'freedom of indifference' but there are various degrees of human freedom in a more worthy sense. The physical and mental behaviour of a human being (or, in principle, of any other finite thing) may be active or passive to various degrees. The more it stems distinctively (or creatively) from its own conatus, the more active it is; the more it is merely acted on by external things, the more passive it is. The active behaviour of the mind consists in what Spinoza calls adequate ideas, the passive behaviour in inadequate ideas; adequate ideas necessarily constitute more genuine knowledge. Knowledge has three main grades, in order of its adequacy: (1) knowledge by hearsay and vague experience; (2) knowledge by general reasoning; (3) intuitive rational insight. The first type of knowledge yields emotion and activity of an essentially enslaved sort; human liberation consists in movement through the second to the third type of knowledge. Only at that level do we cease to be victims of emotions which we do not properly understand and cannot control. The third type of knowledge ultimately yields the 'intellectual love of God', Spinoza's version of salvation.
More informally put, Spinoza regards us in bondage so far as we are under the control of external things (in a sense which includes especially mental processes of our own which we do not properly understand) and as free to the extent that we meet life with creative understanding of what will best serve the purposes that adequate ideas will determine in us.
One may still wonder how far Spinoza is really committed to what one might call a religious view of the world.
Well, he was certainly against all forms of religion which he regarded as life-denying and which view the present life as a mere preparation for a life to come; rather, our primary aim should be joyous living in the here and now. This, however, should ideally culminate in that quasi-mystical grasp of our eternal place in the scheme of things, and oneness with God, or nature, which he calls the intellectual love of God. Love of God, in this sense, should be the focal aim of the wise man's life.
So far as religion, as most people conceive it, goes, he clearly thought that a good deal of it was mere superstition, fomenting intolerance and in many ways unhelpful as a basis for a genuinely good life. But he also thought that for the mass of people, who are incapable of the philosopher's intellectual love of God, a good popular religion could act as a morally worthy substitute, providing a less complete form of salvation available to all who live morally and love God, as they conceive him, appropriately, provided only that their love of God is of a type which promotes obedience to the basic commands of morality.
Spinoza is arguably the only really great 'modern' Western philosopher who develops what can be properly called a personal *philosophy of life.