Baruch Spinoza

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Western Philosophers
17th-century philosophy
Name: Benedictus de Spinoza
Birth: November 24, 1632 (Amsterdam, Netherlands)
Death: February 21, 1677 (The Hague, Netherlands)
School/tradition: Continental rationalism, founder of Spinozism
Main interests
Ethics, epistemology, metaphysics
Notable ideas
Influences Influenced
Hobbes, Descartes, Avicenna, Maimonides, Nicholas of Cusa Conway, Kant, Hegel, Davidson, Schopenhauer, Deleuze, Einstein, Goethe

Benedictus de Spinoza (November 24, 1632 – February 21, 1677), is considered one of the great rationalists of seventeenth-century philosophy. Despite living in one of the most progressive areas of his age (the Netherlands), Spinoza's work was so radical that, while he lived, he allowed for none of his own philosophy to be published under his name. In the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise, his two major works, he advanced bold (and often entirely original) positions on theology, metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and political theory. He is also seen as a founder of modern biblical criticism. Most striking to his contemporaries was his denial that the Bible was a source of philosophical truth, and his view of God as a thoroughly non-anthropomorphized substance in which all other entities inhere. Though his works remained highly controversial long after his death, Spinoza continues to influence philosophers up till the present day.


Spinoza was born to a family of Sephardic Jews, among the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam in 1632. He was given the name 'Bento' (meaning: 'blessed') by his Portuguese-speaking family, and the corresponding Hebrew name 'Baruch.' Later, he would also use the Latin equivalent, 'Benedictus.' Spinoza's father, Michael, was a merchant in Amsterdam, and seems to have had a moderately successful business. Spinoza received several years of education in the local Jewish schools, where he learned Hebrew and studied scripture. It appears, however, that Spinoza did not attend the most advanced classes, likely on account of his being needed in the family business (Spinoza's older brother Isaac died in 1649, and his father in 1654). Relatively little is known about Spinoza's life prior to 1656, yet it is certain that he had already begun to develop his own, radical ideas, and was probably continuing his education informally inside (and perhaps also outside) the Jewish community.

In 1656 the community's governing council issued a cherem (a ban) concerning Spinoza. Though such bans were fairly common in the community, Spinoza's was far more severe than most, expelling him from the Jewish people, and cursing him at length. The cherem gives little detail on the offenses, simply citing "abominable heresies" and "monstrous deeds." Despite this, there is little question that Spinoza must have been publicly advancing some of the views that he would later put into his treatises, wherein he denied that the Bible was a source of literal truth, denied that the Jews were divinely privileged, and denied that God acts by choice.

After his excommunication, Spinoza lived and worked for a while in the school of Franciscus van den Enden, who taught him Latin and may have introduced him to modern philosophy. Spinoza quickly became familiar with the relatively new philosophy of Rene Descartes, and soon became regarded as an expert in it. In this period Spinoza also became acquainted with several dollegiants, members of a non-dogmatic and interdenominational sect with tendencies towards Rationalism.

Sometime in 1661 Spinoza left Amsterdam for the town of Rijnsburg. Not only did Spinoza wish to escape the controversy associated with his cherem (the Jewish community had requested that the Amsterdam government expel him from the city), but he probably also wished to be near Leiden, where he appears to have attended classes. Aside from working on some of his early works (the so-called Short Treatise and the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect), Spinoza took up the trade of lens grinding. He eventually acquired a good deal of fame for his lens making, and Leibniz's first letter to him concerned lenses. The solitary nature of the craft appealed to Spinoza's nature, though the glass dust involved contributed to the respiratory problems that were to result in his early death. It was around this time that Spinoza began his correspondence with Henry Oldenburg.

Spinoza's philosophical reputation had begun to spread by this point, and his early works were at least in part written for the sake of friends in Amsterdam who wished to discuss his views. For a while, a student from Leiden lodged in the same house as Spinoza for the sake of studying Descartes' philosophy. When word of this reached Spinoza's other acquaintances, they requested that Spinoza write down his lessons. As a result, in 1663, Spinoza published a textbook on part of Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, entitled Descartes' Principles of Philosophy Part I and II, Demonstrated in the Geometrical Manner. Attached to this work was a short appendix entitled Metaphysical Thoughts, in which Spinoza cautiously laid out aspects of his own views.

In 1663 Spinoza moved to the town of Voorburg, near The Hague. He continued his mostly solitary work, though he maintained a substantial correspondence with a large number of people. It is not known exactly when Spinoza began his two major works (the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise), but he certainly devoted much time to them in Voorburg. At the encouraging of his friends, and in response to various actions on the part of the conservative Calvinist clergy, Spinoza decided to publish the Theological-Political Treatise at the end of the 1660s (it appeared in 1670). Aware of the risks involved, however, Spinoza published the work anonymously, listing a false publisher. He had had some hope that the work would help to weaken the popular support of the conservative clergy (with the Treatise’s emphasis on the dangers of having religious involvement in government), but the general reaction was almost entirely negative. It was condemned by the government and by most academics (including many Cartesians), and was seen as advancing atheism. The charge of atheism was one that Spinoza found particularly frustrating, given that God played an absolutely central role in his system.

Spinoza moved to The Hague in 1669 or 1670, where he worked primarily on the Ethics. Around 1675, he appears to have been satisfied with the manuscript, and came close to publishing it. However, when rumors began to circulate that another atheistic treatise was coming forth, Spinoza realized that the public was still not ready for his ideas. He had always been cautious concerning his ideas (his signet ring bore the inscription Caute, Latin for 'caution'), and had avoided sharing the work even with Oldenburg and (at least initially) Leibniz. He eventually came to trust Leibniz, who visited him in 1676. During that visit, he showed Leibniz the Ethics, which Leibniz found interesting but puzzling.

In his final years, Spinoza worked on a revision of the Theological-Political Treatise, and began work on a development called the Political Treatise. His death came somewhat unexpectedly on February 21, 1677. He had been suffering from respiratory problems for some time, yet had appeared to everyone to be doing fairly well. Spinoza had always been rather stoic, so he may well have concealed the degree of his ailments. After his death, his friends began to compile his work and correspondence for publication. As expected, the Ethics caused an uproar, but Spinoza's place in the history of Western thought was established.


Spinoza is perhaps the most radical of the early modern rationalists. Like Descartes and Leibniz, he held that reason is capable of giving us knowledge of the nature of reality in a way that the senses and imagination are not. Yet Spinoza held that it is possible for the human mind to know God's own essence, and that the use of reason reveals that the Bible should be seen simply as historically-conditioned text that uses elaborate imagery and fables to convey a simple moral message (and so is not a source of philosophical truth). No other major rationalist saw human reason as having such reach.

Spinoza's central philosophical work is the Ethics. Drawing inspiration from mathematics (Euclid's Elements, in particular) and Descartes' method of 'synthesis' in the Second Replies to the Meditations, Spinoza presents his system in what he calls a 'geometrical' manner. The work is broken into five parts, each of which consists of definitions, axioms, propositions and demonstrations, only occasionally turning to natural prose to illustrate points of particular importance. While this format makes the work somewhat intimidating, it is itself an illustration of the structure of ideas that Spinoza posited.

God and the Attributes

Part 1 of the Ethics lays out Spinoza's radical view of God. God is said to be a substance (defined as "that which is in itself and is conceived through itself"), with absolutely infinitely many attributes. In Descartes' Principles, he ascribed each substance a 'primary attribute,' of which all its other properties are modifications (for instance, a piece of wax has extension as its primary attribute, of which its particular lumpy shape is a modification). Spinoza follows Descartes in holding that extension and thought are attribute, but holds that these are merely the only attributes of which we have any idea.

For Spinoza, God's having absolutely infinitely many attributes entails that God must have every possible attribute. Moreover, Spinoza holds that two substances cannot share attributes, and this entails that God must be the only substance. Given that the only things that exist are substance, attributes, and modifications of the attributes (modes), it must be the case that all particular entities (such as minds and bodies) are merely modifications of God. Descartes had held that particular things depend God for their continued existence (cf. Meditation 3), but had nonetheless held that they were substances in their own right. Spinoza saw such dependence as precluding genuine substancehood.

The different attributes, for Spinoza, are conceived independently of each other, though they are all in God. From these attributes, certain 'infinite modes' follow (that is, follow both logically and ontologically). These infinite modes are, in effect, the natural laws that govern the finite modes (i.e. particular entities) within each attribute. The laws can be said to follow from God's essence, and are absolutely inviolable. Finite modes are determined in their existence by the laws and by preceding finite modes. In other words, Spinoza held a strict form of determinism; given the laws and some state of finite modes at a particular time, the rest of history was determined and inevitable. Without flinching, Spinoza then claimed that everything that happens is necessary, and that any claim that something merely could have happened is based in ignorance of the causes and laws.

According to Spinoza, then, God and Nature are the same fundamental entity. This is captured in his phrase Deus sive Natura - "God or nature," which was removed from the Dutch translation of the Ethics for fear of its being interpreted as atheistic. Even with such a deletion, however, the text is clear that Spinoza denied the conception of God present in nearly all monotheistic religions. God does not act for reasons, and is not concerned with human well-being.

The Mind and Body

The second part of the Ethics moves from general claims concerning God to the specific case of human beings, entities involving modes of only two attributes. Every human mind and body are modes of the attributes of thought and extension, respectively. Spinoza is quite clear that the modes of the two attributes are causally and logically distinct; modes of thought stand in causal relations only to God and to other modes of thought, whereas modes of extension correspondingly stand in causal relations only to God and to other modes of extension. In other words, Spinoza denies that the mind and the body causally interact. Descartes, by contrast, had insisted that such interaction did take place, though this became one of his most controversial doctrines.

For Spinoza, even though the mind and body are causally distinct, they stand in a two-fold intimate relation. For one, the mind itself is nothing other than an idea of the body. For another, the 'order and connection' of the modes of thought is 'parallel' to that of the modes of extension. In other words, for every mode and causal relation between modes that holds in one attribute, there is a corresponding mode and causal relation between modes in the other attribute. As changes occur in my body, then, parallel changes occur in the idea of my body, that is, in my mind. When the body is destroyed, then, the mind is destroyed as well (though see below).

This doctrine of 'parallelism' (a term used by all commentators, though not by Spinoza himself), and the identification of the human mind with the idea of the human body, has a surprising consequence. Rocks, trees, and corpuscles are all modes of extension, and so must have corresponding ideas. This in turn means that such entities, in some sense, have minds. Since the extended bodies of such entities are far less complex than our bodies, their minds will correspondingly be much less complex. This view (a form of panpsychism) is tied up with Spinoza's repeated insistence that humans are a part of nature. For the difference between humans and rocks is merely a matter of degree of complexity, not a difference in kind.

The Emotions

One of the central ideas of the Ethics is that each thing strives to preserve its own existence. This striving is expressed in the Latin word conatus. Spinoza's theory of emotion is based on the idea that emotions are changes in our power of persevering. The three basic emotions, then, are desire (the awareness of our striving), joy (the increase of our power) and sadness (the decrease of our power).

On this basis, Spinoza goes on to catalog many other emotions. Love is joy accompanied by an idea of the cause of that joy, while hate is sadness accompanied by an idea of the cause of that sadness. Part 3 of the Ethics is primarily concerned with such cataloging.

While being a rationalist and having certain Stoic tendencies, Spinoza did not believe that reason is capable of gaining control over the emotions—humans are part of nature, and will therefore be affected by other parts of nature. Such affection will involve changes in our power of persevering, which is simply what the basic emotions amount to. Nevertheless, Spinoza does think that we can attain a certain, weaker control in virtue of other emotions, and that our greatest good lies in reason.

Knowledge and our Highest Good

In Part 2 of the Ethics, Spinoza divides knowledge into three kinds. Knowledge of the first kind is knowledge from the senses, from symbols (such as words) or from testimony by others. Knowledge of the second kind is based on 'common notions' (explained below), while knowledge of the third kind moves to knowledge of particular things from an adequate idea of the essence of God's attributes. Only the first kind of knowledge is capable of falsity, and it alone is the cause of our errors.

Recall that, for Spinoza, the human mind is nothing other than the idea of the human body. Because of the parallelism, any change in the human body will be accompanied by a change in the idea of that body. When other bodies causally affect the body, the mind will then involve an idea of that affect. Such an idea is knowledge of the first kind with respect to the external affecting object. This idea is not an 'adequate' conception of the thing, however, since it has only an indirect relation to its object (meaning that some different object could have given rise to the same affect and therefore to the same idea). Any feature which is common to all bodies will hold of the human body, so there will necessarily be an idea of that feature - this being knowledge of the second kind. Unlike the case of knowledge of the first kind, however, no other feature could have given rise to that same idea, so such knowledge is necessarily adequate. The same is true with knowledge of the third kind, which is reached by seeing how the nature of a thing follows from the essence of God's attributes.

Spinoza held a strikingly relativistic view of good and evil. These notions only make sense, he claims, relative to some particular entity's conatus. A certain fact may help one entity persevere while hindering another. For the first entity, this fact is good, while for the second it is bad.

While Descartes held that a mind's persistence is independent of facts about what ideas it contains, Spinoza's view of the mind as itself an idea leads to a different position. To the degree that our mind is occupied with ideas of finite things (such as our body, its affects, and the objects of its emotions), it is in a sense constituted by such ideas, and so lasts only as long as they do. Yet if we occupy our minds with ideas of infinite, eternal things (that is, God and his attributes), our mind becomes constituted by such ideas, and so in a sense can have a certain immortality. Attaining this immortality is the greatest possible increase in our power to persevere, and so is necessarily the source of joy. Knowledge of God, then, is our highest good. Because this good can, at least in principle, be attained by all humans, the good of each human is compatible.

Political Thought

Fundamental to Spinoza's political thought (presented in the Theological-Political Treatise and the later Political Treatise) is his notion of each thing's conatus - or striving to persevere. Even though he sees contemplation of God as the highest good, Spinoza recognizes that it is rarely possible for humans to engage in such contemplation. He considers a sort of state of nature, wherein each individual independently so strives. Given that we are mere modes in a vast causal web, however, we find it reasonable to forfeit a certain degree of our freedom to enter into a society for the sake of security. Spinoza, then, accepted a form of social contract theory.

The society itself constitutes an entity for Spinoza, and so has its own striving for perseverance. In light of this, Spinoza holds that the society has the right to a good deal of control over the lives of its constituents (though not over their thoughts, religious beliefs, and expressions thereof, for reasons similar to those later espoused by John Stuart Mill). While the state should be free from interference by clergy, it does have a right to regulate public religious matters. There should be a single religion that the state regulates, so as to preclude the possibility of sectarianism.

While Spinoza held that the best form of government (with respect to the interest of its citizens) is a representative democracy, he believed that not all nations were prepared for such a government. In light of this, the unfinished Political Treatise set out to show the directions in which existing governments should develop. Oligarchies, for instance, should have a sufficiently large class of rulers to ensure stability and prevent any one ruler from attaining too much power. Monarchies, however, should establish some body of representatives who would propose options for the ruler - where the ruler was not allowed to act in any way beyond the proposed options.

Biblical Interpretation

Along with his friend Lodewijk Meyer, Spinoza held some of the most radical views concerning scripture of his day. He completely denied that the Bible was a source of any truth beyond a simple moral message: "Love God and your neighbor." Given this, there was no possibility for a conflict of scripture with philosophy or science. The text, he claimed, was a fairly haphazard collection of writings by various individuals, and must be read with its history in mind. Spinoza also held that the text should be read in the original Hebrew, and towards this end composed part of a grammar of the Hebrew language.

One of the more striking of Spinoza's interpretive conclusions concerns the prophets. The prophets, he claimed, were not deliverers of divine truth. Rather, they were individuals who to some degree realized the simply moral message of God, and had particularly vivid imaginations. The images involved in their prophesies could be of use in communicating the moral message, but Spinoza's rationalism (with the general rationalist distinction between imagination and the intellect) meant that their words should be given no weight in the search for truth about the nature of God.

The Pantheism Controversy (Pantheismusstreit)

In 1785 Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi published a condemnation of Spinoza's pantheism, after Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was thought to have confessed on his deathbed to being a "Spinozist." Jacobi claimed that Spinoza's doctrine was pure materialism, because Nature and God are said to be nothing but extended substance. This, for Jacobi, was the result of Enlightenment rationalism and it would finally end in absolute atheism. Moses Mendelssohn disagreed with Jacobi, saying that there is no actual difference between theism and pantheism. The entire issue became a major intellectual and religious concern for European civilization at the time, which Immanuel Kant rejected, as he thought that attempts to conceive of transcendent reality would lead to antinomies in thought.

Modern relevance

Albert Einstein said that Spinoza was the philosopher who had most influenced his worldview (Weltanschauung). Spinoza equated God (infinite substance) with Nature, and Einstein, too, believed in an impersonal deity. His desire to understand Nature through physics can be seen as contemplation of God. Arne Næss, the father of the deep ecology movement, acknowledged drawing much inspiration from the works of Spinoza.

In the late twentieth century, there was a great increase in philosophical interest in Spinoza in Europe, often from a left-wing and Marxist perspectives. Notable philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Antonio Negri and Étienne Balibar have each written books on Spinoza. Other philosophers heavily influenced by Spinoza were Constantin Brunner and John David Garcia. Stuart Hampshire, who composed a substantial study of Spinoza's work, was also influenced by his ideas. Spinoza's theory of emotion has been approvingly discussed in recent work by Antonio Damasio.

Spinoza's portrait featured prominently on the 1000 Dutch gulden banknote, which was legal tender in the Netherlands until the Euro was introduced in 2002.

The highest and most prestigious scientific prize of the Netherlands is named the Spinozapremie (“Spinoza reward”).

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By Spinoza

The current critical edition of Spinoza's work (in the original Latin and Dutch):

  • 1925. Spinoza Opera (4 vols.), C. Gebhardt (ed.). Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

The principle English translation of the Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, Short Treatise, Descartes' Principles of Philosophy, the Ethics, and letters from August 1661-September 1665:

  • 1985. The Collected Works of Spinoza (vol. 1), E. Curley (ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

The second volume of the Princeton collection has not yet been published.

The only current complete works:

  • 2002. The Complete Works, Michael L. Morgan (ed.), Samuel Shirley (trans.). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing.

Hackett has also individually published each of Spinoza's major works.

About Spinoza

  • Albiac, Gabriel. 1987. La sinagoga vacía: un estudio de las fuentes marranas del espinosismo. Madrid: Hiperión D.L.
  • Allison, Henry. 1987. Benedictus de Spinoza: An Introduction. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300035969
  • Balibar, Etienne. 1985. Spinoza et la politique ("Spinoza and politics"). Paris: University Presses of France.
  • Bennett, Jonathan. 1984. A Study of Spinoza's Ethics. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett. ISBN 0915145839
  • Curley, Edwin. 1988. Behind the Geometrical Method. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. ISBN 069102037X
  • Delahunty, R.J. 1985. Spinoza. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. 1990. Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. M. Joughin (trans.). New York: Zone Books. ISBN 0942299515
  • Deleuze, Gilles. 1970. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. English translation, 1988. City Lights Publishers. ISBN 0872862186
  • Della Rocca, Michael. 1996. Representation and the Mind-Body Problem in Spinoza. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195095626
  • Donagan, Alan. 1988. Spinoza. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226155692
  • Garrett, Don (ed.). 1995. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521398657
  • Gatens, Moira, and Genevieve Lloyd. 1999. Collective Imaginings: Spinoza, Past and Present. London: Routledge.
  • Gueroult, Martial. 1968. Spinoza, Tome I: Dieu (Ethique I). Paris: Aubier Montaigne.
  • Gueroult, Martial. 1974. Spinoza, Tome II: L'Ame. Paris: Aubier Montaigne.
  • Gullan-Whur, Margaret. 1998. Within Reason: A Life of Spinoza. First U.S. edition, 2000. St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0312253583
  • Hampshire, Stuart. 1962. Spinoza. Revised edition, 1993. Penguin Books. ISBN 0140136568
  • Lloyd, Genevieve. 1996. Spinoza and the Ethics. Routledge. ISBN 0415107822
  • Macherey, Pierre. 1977. Hegel ou Spinoza, Maspéro (2nd ed. La Découverte, 2004).
  • Macherey, Pierre. 1994-98. Introduction à l'Ethique de Spinoza. Paris: PUF.
  • Matheron, Alexandre. 1969. Individu et communauté chez Spinoza. Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit.
  • Nadler, Steven. 1999. Spinoza: A Life. New edition, 2001. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521002931
  • Nadler, Steven. 2001. Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind. Paperback edition, 2004. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0199268878
  • Negri, Antonio. 1991. The Savage Anomaly: The Power of Spinoza's Metaphysics and Politics. Transl. by Michael Hardt, 2000. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0816636702
    • Preface (in French) by Gilles Deleuze, available here.
  • Wolfson, Harry Austryn. 1969. The Philosophy of Spinoza (2 vols.). New York: Schocken.

External links

All links retrieved September 20, 2023.

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