Dr. Ari Santas’ Introductory Notes Benedict de Spinoza

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Dr. Ari Santas

Introductory Notes

Benedict de Spinoza
A. Biography (1632-1677)
"Spinoza...is of all philosophers the one whose life has least apparent connection with his work." (EP VII, 530-1)
"Of Spinoza this is especially the case [that it is impossible to understand his work without a knowledge of his life], for, whether we view it from the standpoint of the thought or that of the thinker of the thought, the two fuse into one organic and consistent whole." (Spinoza Selections, xi)

  • Now you can see the difficulty in interpreting the work of Spinoza and the significance of his life!

  • he was born the son of a prominent Jewish family in 1632 in Amsterdam, on the 24th day of November.

  • he went to Rabbinical school, where he received a thorough training in Hebrew language and literature

    • not satisfied, however, just with what the Hebrew tradition had to offer, he sought instruction from the European tradition of Latin writers

      • most notably, he studied Cartesian Philosophy

  • Spinoza's thirst for knowledge cost him an excommunication

    • the attempted bribe

  • and his inheritance (though he got it back--then gave it away!)

  • at age 24, he took up lens grinding and began some serious writing:

The Principles of Descartes' Philosophy, Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being, Ethics, Tractatus Theologico Politicus, Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding

  • Spinoza received some recognition during his life

  • he was offered a pension if he dedicated a work to king Louis XIV

  • he was offered the chair of Philosophy at the University of Heidelberg

    • he turned down both, not wanting to be tied to anyone in his ideas

  • after his death in 1677, brought on by inhaling glass dust on the job, he was vilified as an amoral atheist

B. Strategy for Reading Spinoza:

  1. (after trying to go through the propositions the first time) go through the text reading only his notes (the “scholia”)

  2. reread the propositions without reading the proofs

  3. read secondary literature

  4. reread I & II, spending time with the proofs wherein something important seems to be happening

  5. repeat the process as needed 

C. Irrationality of Descartes' Rationalism

  • to understand Spinoza's extreme rationalism, we must compare it to Cartesian rationalism

  • for Descartes, the proper approach to inquiry was that of Reason, but underlying all use of reason was a faith in God

    • God guarantees clear and distinct ideas which mathematics manipulates for us to generate predictive results

    • Ultimately, reason and logic were the result of God who could change the laws of reason at will

      • he could bring it about, for instance, that circles be square

  • hence, faith in God and knowledge of Him is always primary in Cartesian thinking

  • a consequence, which doesn't get fully worked out until the Occasionalists (e.g., Malebranche), is that the world itself is not a rational system at all

  • the world is created and recreated at every instant by God; there are not immanent connections between things

  • all connections are supplied by God, be they causal, logical, or whatever

  • to say that 'a' caused 'b' is to say that there was an occasion 'a'--caused by God--and then an occasion 'b'--also caused by God; but it is not to say that something in 'a' had the power to bring about 'b'

  • all power and rationality are in God, but inasmuch as all is subject to God's will, it's not really a rationality at all!

  • Spinoza recognized the problem here (as will Leibniz and Hume) and sought to re-rationalize rationalism

D. Spinoza's Rationalism

  • the Cartesian Circle rears its ugly head because reason and its clear and distinct ideas are not self-justifying

    • how can I prove I exist by virtue of logic (it's absurd to deny my own thinking) if logic must be justified by appeal to a Being whose existence is proved through the assumption of my being?

  • Spinoza realized that if knowledge is to be possible, we must take reason as a starting point

    • clear and distinct ideas are self-justifying

  • along with the assumption of reason's self-guarantee is the assumption that the world is completely continuous and orderly (in its own right)

  • further, it must be assumed that the human mind is necessarily capable of knowing it naturally, that is, on its own

  • To sum up, the world is both rational and discoverable by the human intellect

"Instead of following Descartes in making the universe a chaos and trying to justify God by what little order there is, Spinoza saw clearly that out of chaos only chaos could be derived, that if God could not be justified by reason there is no justification." (Spinoza Selections, xxiii)

  • God, then, is not the source of reason, but vice versa

    • if you can't trust reason, there is nothing to trust and you may as well not think!

E. Spinoza's God

  • in Descartes there were three substances, or kinds of stuff, two in the world--mind and body, and one outside of it--God

    • God, the outsider, is the efficient (transitive) cause of everything in Nature

  • Spinoza collapses these three into one: the dualism/ triadism becomes a non-reductive (i.e., neutral) monism

    • God is everything and everything is God

    • He is not external to the world as Descartes' God is

    • He does not recreate it at every instant

    • there is no point in time in which the world didn't exist any more that there is a moment when He didn't

  • for Spinoza it makes no sense to talk about God creating the universe, though it's perfectly intelligible to say He is its cause--its immanent cause

    • the world exists in and through Him, never outside Him

  • God is Nature

  • it follows that if Nature exists, God exists

  • more strongly, it follows that if anything exists, God exists

  • following Anselm, Spinoza further asserts that it is impossible to conceive of God except as existing

  • if God is the being by virtue of which all things are, if He is identified as the complete totality of Being, then He must necessarily exist

  • but if He be external to the world, there is no way that He could have brought it about

  • in such a case not only could we not prove His existence, but we would have to conclude that He couldn't exist! (how can something be external to everything?)

F. Substance, Modes, Attributes

  • substance is identifiable with God, Nature, the complete totality of Being

    • it is unique, eternal, infinite, continuous, indivisible (except in abstraction), etc., much like Parmenides' "Being”

  • Why, then, we shall ask, is it that we perceive individual thing?

    • his answer is that it is useful to perceive things as distinct for certain purposes, but when we really examine "things" carefully...

    • we find that there are no clear lines of individuation:

      • my eyes, for instance, are what they are by virtue of their relation to my body

      • their complete function involves many other parts of the organism

      • take any other example and the same results are found

  • What we call things Spinoza calls modes of substance

    • one might also call them manifestations of substance, or sub-organizations

    • anything finite, no matter how complex or simple, can be characterized as a mode

  • attributes are what we might call aspects of substance (here it gets murky)

    • since substance is infinite and self-contained, its attributes must be infinite in number and in degree

    • that is, there's an infinite number of them...

    • and each one is infinite in scope

  • the two aspects that humans can be familiar with are extension and thought

    • nature of course is infinite in extent

    • thought is limited by nothing and self-contained

G. Mankind's Place in Nature

  • though it may not be apparent from the foregoing analysis, Spinoza's ultimate concern in his writings is the instruction of men in leading a good life

  • just as nature (substance--God) has the aspects of extension and thought, so too man is body and mind

  • yet he is finite--he is a mode of the substance to which he belongs

  • the goal of man is to find his place in nature, and this can be done in two ways:

    • first, we must recognize that our body is not ultimately distinguishable from the infinite extension of nature--or any of its other modes

    • accordingly, we must find our place in society and in our environment at large (compare to eco-centrism in environmentalism today)

    • second, we must recognize that our mind (or soul) is a particular manifestation of the mind of God

    • if we can steer ourselves with clarity and away from prejudice and confusion, we are coming closer to God

  • between these two aspects of the world through which we find God, we find an eternity

    • we realize that we perceive distinct finite things only because the finitude of our imagination can only report the world a little at a time

    • as we come to understand things, we see their connection to an infinite totality

    • once we come to this understanding we realize that the eternity which we seek is not in some hereafter world beyond this one, but here and now.

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