Why Spinoza still matters
May 1, 2016 1:57 AM   Subscribe

Yay Spinoza. The best person I learnt about studying undergraduate philosophy at Oxford. The most rational of the rationalists - swiftly disposing of Descartes' dualism, and presenting a more unified view than either he or whatever it was Leibnitz was all about. Unsurprising he should be classed as a heretic and atheist, though really he was neither - he just didn't think it made sense to divide God, physical reality, human life etc into separate things in the big picture - and he presented that as a mathematical proof, so basic and unassailable did it apparently seem to him. Today we associate his worldview more with eastern religions, and the judeochristian faiths have remained entrenched in dogmas of a fractured reality, separated God and divided humanity. As a human being and non religious Jew, I'm also proud he remains unaffiliated and unaccepted by any organised religion - he was too universalist for that. Long may he be celebrated and remembered.
posted by iotic at 2:16 AM on May 1, 2016 [7 favorites]

Spinoza was also Jeeves' favourite philosopher. What higher recommendation could there be?
posted by Paul Slade at 2:55 AM on May 1, 2016 [9 favorites]

[Steven Nadler, a professor of philosophy.]

Also check out Nadler's great essay on the recent efforts to reverse Spinoza's banishment from his Jewish community.
posted by voltairemodern at 3:37 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, I was surprised initially to learn of this unexpected tangent in the career of the former GNR drummer ...
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:36 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Years ago as a very young philosopher wanabe, Spinoza's logical and (sortof) scientific approach made him my favorite thinker. It has been my long term and almost certainly to be unrequited goal in life, to conceive one small idea sufficiently radical and disruptive to be excommunicated.

Not being a formal member of any organized religion and well that just does not happen in our "enlightened" time in history I certainly am cognizant that it's not going to happen but childhood dreams of jet packs or curing cancer can remain a useful extra lens in ones worldview and continue to be a silent goal under the covers in how to approach events.
posted by sammyo at 5:53 AM on May 1, 2016

I spent some years reading and thinking and arguing about Spinoza with Jonathan Israel in the years just prior to the publication of Radical Enlightenment. I can't agree with Jonathan's strong theory on the centrality of Spinozistic thought to ... well ... everything, but, yeah, Nadler's right: paying closer attention to Spinoza would be one way to think and act more critically -- meaning more humanely -- about the societies we have built for ourselves.
posted by bebrogued at 6:12 AM on May 1, 2016

CBC Ideas had a nice overview of Spinoza's life and ideas a couple of years ago.
posted by sneebler at 7:01 AM on May 1, 2016

> but you won’t find many committed Cartesians or Leibnizians around today.


I know many (misguided) Cartesians, and even a few solid fellow Leibnizians. I know one Spinozan.
posted by bukvich at 7:04 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

This was very helpful. Reading Spinoza has been on my "hopefully someday" list for like 20 years. He comes up a lot in stuff I read but it's always assumed that the reader is familiar with his work and point of view. Now, I understand why he's assumed but I can't say why he was never assigned in a University, nor was anything that met him on the grounds he intended to tread.
Further, I can't say why you'd bother to invoke the man's name and wave your hand toward his work related to some idiosyncratic idea that author feels is tangential, deep, and spiritual as I so often see. This piece suggests his work is central, rational and unsentimental. Shouldn't he be written down in the "given" column by now? Shouldn't he have been assigned? Why do flakey arguments often invoke his name?
posted by putzface_dickman at 7:17 AM on May 1, 2016

(Nice to see you back around here.)
posted by benito.strauss at 8:47 AM on May 1, 2016

My favorite thing about reading Spinoza was what an absolutely arrogant tone his writing could take. Here was a guy being threatened and having attempts made in his life in Europe's most open-minded and inclusive country, and his tone is essentially "I know you guys think all this stuff about God, but if you follow my carefully-numbered list of axioms and principles, you'll see you're all fucking morons."
posted by middleclasstool at 8:50 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's been thirty years since I read any Spinoza, and I wish I had more time... . I read him in high school (!) as part of a European history class which started with ancient Greece and which incorporated readings from philosophers appropriate to the time period we were currently studying. Although I don't remember any specifics, I definitely having the feeling that his attitudes seemed much more "20th century" than any of the other philosophers we had read, or would read.

People who are led by passion rather than reason are easily manipulated by ecclesiastics.

posted by Slothrup at 8:59 AM on May 1, 2016

It has been my long term and almost certainly to be unrequited goal in life, to conceive one small idea sufficiently radical and disruptive to be excommunicated.

If you fail to achieve that goal, please don't feel bad at all... Stumbling into or being born into a community of idiots is a requirement for being excommunicated.
posted by iffthen at 9:33 AM on May 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Stumbling into or being born into a community of idiots is a requirement for being excommunicated.

Spinoza was the pupil of great scholars. One of them, Menasseh ben Israel, talked Cromwell into allowing Jews to return to England. Falling afoul of the reigning authorities doesn't require that the latter be idiots. There is plenty in Spinoza to discomfit the authorities of today, which may explain why he is not central to academic curricula.
posted by No Robots at 10:12 AM on May 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

you'll see you're all fucking morons.

But in a good, all-fucking-morons-participate-in-the-divinity-of- nature kind of way.
posted by Segundus at 10:14 AM on May 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

there is also this which i think is very important.
posted by poffin boffin at 10:29 AM on May 1, 2016 [3 favorites]

The older I get, the more my own metaphysical leanings angle toward his God-as-infinite-sea-in-which-I-am-but-a-small-wave view of things. I really wanted to embrace Leibniz's Monadology because it's creative and bonkers and appealing to anyone who's experimented with hallucinogens, but it never held up for me.
posted by middleclasstool at 10:58 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

My favorite thing about reading Spinoza was what an absolutely arrogant tone his writing could take.

I think people who feel like they are under attack or being persecuted tend toward a little proactive grandiosity and what can read as arrogance. When reading tone, I think we'd all be better off to consider context and background of the speaker rather than mistaking our own personal reactions to the tone with something inherent to the text. Especially when it comes to texts from another time and place. A default level of pomposity was just sort of expected of writers and thinkers working in certain contexts. Is Spinoza any more arrogant than others relative to the field? I doubt anybody could be more arrogant than, say, Nietzsche declaring himself to be Dionysus, Caesar, and Jesus all embodied in one person, but you know, that was the style. :)
posted by saulgoodman at 11:38 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some have claimed Leibniz's Monadology is not a mature system and that he never really got around to putting one book together which represented his final mature (and possibly dangerous) ideas, being preoccupied with so much other polymath stuff. I like Bertrand Russell's book. (<-----for middleclasstool)
posted by bukvich at 11:41 AM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

Well, I don't think "intellectual freedom" is the same as "religious freedom". In fact, if you really examine it, the doctrines of most religions make "religious freedom" an oxymoron. You get to make one decision, then everything else is determined for you.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:50 PM on May 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I liked this article a lot. Nadler obviously knows a lot. Not only about Spinoza but also about the political situation in the NL at that time. And still it's a really readable article. That's a rare skill for an academic.

I'm so impressed with how modern Spinoza's thinking sounds. Especially when I think about how stodgy and irrelevant most Dutch writing from let's say around 1910 is.
Truly a man ahead of his time.

I'll be definitely visiting some of the places that he lived in Rijnburg and Den Haag.

Benito tx!
I notice the first name of your handle is very similar a version of Spinozas first name. Coïncidence?
posted by joost de vries at 12:51 PM on May 1, 2016 [2 favorites]

Btw I'm curious about bebrogueds discussions about Spinoza with Jonathan Israel.
Tell us more!
posted by joost de vries at 12:55 PM on May 1, 2016

So if I wanted to check out Spinoza, where should I start? What's a good entry point to his work?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:34 PM on May 1, 2016

Spinoza pointed me at the so so so much. Really one of my greatest intellectual heroes.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:21 PM on May 1, 2016

Also a huge influence on Deleuze!
posted by Joseph Gurl at 7:21 PM on May 1, 2016

You might do well to start with a "secondary" source -- for example, I see there's a "Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction" book in the "Very Short Introduction" series by Oxford University Press, which is pretty high-quality. You'll be getting one philosopher's (in this case, Roger Scruton's) take on Spinoza, but you'll be spared the task of coming to grips with 17th-century philosophical lingo on your own.
However, if you do get half an hour alone with the "Ethics" in a bookstore or library sometime, there's usually a bit at the end of each section of Euclidean-style "proofs" (Proposition IV.ii.2, Corollary III, blah blah blah) where Spinoza takes a breath and says "so okay, this is what I was trying to say..." and I have a feeling that just reading those bits might give you a good sense of what he's about.
Spinoza can be quite inspiring...his methods may be antiquated, but his mind was centuries ahead of his time and his basic attitude was "wouldn't it be nice if we all just cooperated with each other in pursuit of knowledge?"
posted by uosuaq at 8:13 PM on May 1, 2016 [4 favorites]

Here is a guy with a comparison of Leibniz monad and Indra net from the Avatamsaka Sutra.

No idea how Leibniz might have seen the A. S.
posted by bukvich at 4:49 PM on May 7, 2016

I love the Very Short Introduction series and I have that Spinoza one, just need to read it. I wish they had one on Leibniz, but they do not seem to.

I find there is a paradox about the rationalist philosophers. They are at once very hard for us to understand (what is "substance"? what does it mean to have a concept of perception as a sort of confused thinking? not to mention, what the hell is Leibniz talking about with his monads?) and, at the same time, aspects of their thought are ubiquitous in the modern world and form (with a weird mashup with empiricism) much of the conventional notion of rationality that's usually taken for granted in science circles. Think of the way that people think it's somehow self-evident that there are Laws of Nature that are knowable by, as it were, the light of reason. It is easy to see the influence of Descartes in modern thought, but I'd expect to find his philosophy to be deeply weird if I studied it seriously.
posted by thelonius at 3:17 PM on May 10, 2016 [1 favorite]

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