This second year course will introduce the central arguments of the seventeenth-century rationalist philosopher Benedict de Spinoza through his magnum opus - the Ethics. The text is complex but rewards detailed study. It is not limited to a discussion of ethics but is rather a complete system of metaphysics, including a compelling philosophy of mind and an original political philosophy. The aim of this course will be to provide students with the skills to approach and navigate difficult texts in the history of philosophy, to appreciate and critically assess attempts to develop ‘complete’ philosophical systems, and to investigate the continued relevance of Spinoza’s work in many of philosophy’s subdisciplines.
Spinoza was the most controversial philosopher of the early modern period. He was expelled from the community that raised him aged 23, before he had published a word, his anonymously published Theological-Political Treatise was referred to as ‘a book forged in hell’, and an attempt was made on his life. To be called a ‘Spinozist’ for almost a century after was to be labelled a heretic. Nonetheless, he lived to develop a systematic body of philosophy and his Ethics, published posthumously in 1677, remains today one of the richest single texts in the entire canon of western philosophy. In this module, we will begin by examining Spinoza’s rationalism, his substance monism, and his arguments for determinism. We will then assess his contributions to the philosophy of mind and epistemology, focusing on his theories of mind-body parallelism, ideas, and the affects. At this point we shall consider how his metaphysics and philosophy of mind contribute to his political philosophy, referring also to his Theological-Political Treatise. We shall conclude the course by discussing the ‘ethics’ of the Ethics and by considering Spinoza’s role as a central enlightenment thinker.
2. Intended Learning Outcomes
Gain the skills to critically evaluate important texts in the history of philosophy.
Understand the importance of contemporary scholarly debates concerning interpretive issues relating to Spinoza’s philosophy.
Come to appreciate the complex web of issues, metaphysical, scientific, moral and theological prevalent in early modern philosophy.
Develop the critical skills required to assess the various theories proposed and to evaluate the contemporary responses.
The course will be assessed by one mid-semester literature search and review (30%) and an essay of 5,000 words to be submitted at the end of the semester (70%). The literature search and review should be on the same aspect of the philosopher's thought as the essay.
Essay titles: Choose one of the questions pertaining to the seminars. If you would like to write your own question, please confirm it with me first.
5. Seminar Outline
Spinoza’s Life and Work
Nadler, S. (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction, Chapters 1 & 2
Nadler, S. (1999) Spinoza: A Life
God or Nature I: Substance Monism
Question: Does Spinoza provide convincing arguments to defend his substance monism?
Spinoza, Ethics, pp. 1-15 (From I. D1 to the end of P17)
Nadler, S. (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics:An Introduction, Chapter 3
Bayle, P. ‘Spinoza’. In: Historical and Critical Dictionary, pp. 288-338
Bennett, J. (1984) A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics, Chapter 3