Key thinker: Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677)
Baruch de Spinoza (1632–1677)
Baruch Spinoza was born in Amsterdam to Portuguese Jewish parents who had been forcibly converted to Christianity during the Inquisition (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/baruch-spinoza). In Portugal, Spinoza’s family had continued to practice Judaism in secret, which led to their arrest, torture, and, eventually, escape to Amsterdam, where Jewish communities from Portugal, Spain, France, or Italy could practice their religion freely (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Benedict-de-Spinoza). Spinoza attended the local Talmud Torah school, where he received an education in Hebrew and religious study. While Spinoza excelled in his studies, he left school at age 17 to take over his father’s import and export business (see 6.1. Introduction).
Through his business dealings, Spinoza was introduced to a diverse set of people with different philosophical and religious outlooks, including ‘free-thinking’ Protestants who had broken with Calvinism. Like the ‘free-thinkers’, Spinoza was drawn to questions about the relationship between theology and science (see 6.1. Introduction). He increasingly rejected ideas that had been central to his religious upbringing, such as the immortality of the soul, the existence of a transcendent God, or the notion that the commandments of the Torah were given to Jews by God (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/). This put him at odds with the Jewish community in Amsterdam and in 1656, aged 24, he was summed before a rabbinical court, charged with heresy, and excommunicated from the synagogue (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/baruch-spinoza).
Little is known about Spinoza’s activities in the years after his excommunication. But it is likely that he frequently travelled to Leiden to learn from the Dutch Cartesians (see Key thinker: René Descartes). During this period, Spinoza began to formulate his philosophical ideas in writing (https://iep.utm.edu/spinoza/). In 1661, Spinoza briefly settled in Rijnsburg near Leiden, but quickly moved on to Voorburg, a small town near The Hague. He would live near The Hague for the rest of his life. In 1663, Spinoza published Principles of Philosophy (1663), a critical exposition of Descartes; it is the only text he ever published under his own name. At the time, Spinoza was also working on the Ethics (1677), which is considered his most important philosophical work (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/).
In 1670, Spinoza published his Theological-Political Treatise, which defended the freedom to philosophize against attacks from the clergy (https://iep.utm.edu/spinoza/). The book caused a stir and Spinoza was condemned as atheist, a label he rejected. Spinoza earned his living as a lens grinder and therefore did not depend on the support of institutions like the university, the church, or the courts (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2011/feb/07/spinoza-philosophy-god-world). Spinoza’s health had been declining for some time and, in 1677, he succumbed to his illness. He was 44 years old.
Spinoza was an important Enlightenment thinker, whose writing has not received the attention that it perhaps deserves (see 6.1. Introduction). His philosophical system is based on the radical rejection of the idea that there is a transcendent God; for Spinoza, there is no deity that exists independent of the material world (see 6.2.1. The critique of religion). For Spinoza, the belief in a transcendent God, who creates the world and guides its evolution, is a fiction that human beings have developed to make sense of their existence. Spinoza’s claim that religion is a mystifying force which prevents us from truly understanding our material reality prefigures Karl Marx’s idea that ideology is a veil that obscures capitalist social relations (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx).
This understanding of God, and the religious beliefs and superstitions that derive from it, however, prevents us from gaining a rational understanding of nature. In the Ethics, Spinoza argues for a radical monism, which rejects Cartesian dualism (see Key thinker: René Descartes) and instead proposes that God is one with nature itself (see 6.2. From Ethics to Politics). For Spinoza, there is no separation between mind and body or between God and nature. Spinoza is a pantheist, meaning that he believes that God is in everything that exists. Human beings, then, are only one expression of the ‘infinite substance’ (God), and so are their thought and bodily functions.
Spinoza’s pantheism finds its practical expression in his Theological-Political Treatise (1670), the only work to be published during his lifetime (see 6.1. Introduction). With his critique of the belief that religious doctrines can reveal humanity’s divine purpose, Spinoza hoped to undermine the power of the church over the state. For Spinoza, natural philosophical reason should always stand above religious belief. While the Treatise is considered one of the earliest statements of liberal democracy, Spinoza’s association with liberalism is not clear-cut. His relational conception of the individual (see Key concept: Individualism), for example, departs from the humanism that forms the basis of liberal individualism (see 6.2.2. Bodies and Minds).
According to Spinoza, individuals are composed of a web of social relations and relations with non-human entities (see 6.2. From Ethics to Politics: Key Points); therefore, human agency is always determined, or at least constrained, by our environment. For him, there is no such thing as free will. Unlike Immanuel Kant, Spinoza does not believe that thinking individuals can gain true knowledge simply through deductive reasoning. He distinguishes between three types of knowledge: imagination, reason, and intuition (see Key concept: Knowledge). While the first corresponds to a posteriori and the second to a priori forms of knowledge (see Key Concept: a priori—a posteriori in Chapter 29 on Immanuel Kant), the third refers to an intuitive understanding of the complex web of connections that make up our world (see 6.2.2. Bodies and Minds).
Spinoza’s Treatise is perhaps closer to the political realism of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (see Chapter 25 on Niccolò Machiavelli) than liberalism. Like Machiavelli, Spinoza doesn’t idealize human beings and understands that they exist in a complex world governed by passions and desires. Spinoza has little interest in the moral or political legitimacy of a state; instead, he is more concerned with how its power is produced (see 6.3.1. From Right to Power). Spinoza’s critique of morality shares some similarities with Friedrich Nietzsche (see Chapter 14 on Friedrich Nietzsche) who also argues that moral norms cannot form the basis for knowledge or politics, and that they must be critically interrogated.
Spinoza, however, does not share Nietzsche’s aristocratic sympathies (Losurdo, 2021). In his unpublished Political Treatise (1677), he devises a theory of democracy which, according to some commentators (Balibar, 1994), can serve as a stabilising force in any political order. Spinoza argues that the people pose the greatest threat to the stability of a state, and therefore their demands must be accommodated (see 6.3. Democracy: Politics Beyond the State). Unlike the social contract theories of John Locke (see Chapter 7 on John Locke) or Thomas Hobbes (see Chapter 5 on Thomas Hobbes), Spinoza’s political philosophy does not derive from a particular conception of human nature. Rather, it prefigures theorists like Michael Foucault (see Chapter 33 on Michel Foucault) or Judith Butler (see Chapter 36 on Judith Butler), who argue that politics is defined by shifting and dynamic power relations (see Key concept: Power).
Spinoza’s idea of the multitude (see 6.3.2. The Political Shadow of the Multitude), which exists in a dynamic relationship with the state, has been taken up by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who use the term to describe a new class subject that will emerge to challenge the capitalist world-system they call ‘Empire’. Spinoza can be considered a thinker of the masses, whose political thought centres collective politics. But he is unclear on the question of how exactly the multitude might come to some agreement and form a unity to challenge state power (see 6.4.1. The Unity of the Multitude). Moreover, for all its emphasis on the multitude, Spinoza’s thought is marked by the exclusion of foreigners, women, children, and servants from democratic politics, and his virtual silence on Dutch colonialism. While there is some evidence that Spinoza reflected on the question of colonialism, he never considered its interconnection with Enlightenment thought (see 6.1. Introduction) or how profits from colonial endeavours had enabled Dutch mercantile capitalism to flourish.
Spinoza’s thought has been an important resource for contemporary ecological thought. Donna Haraway’s post-humanism, for example, argues that humans are part of a complex network of organic and inorganic entities that mutually shape each other (see Chapter 38 on Donna Haraway). Dipesh Chakrabarty’s writing has similarly focused on the relationship between human and non-human entities. For Chakrabarty, ‘the Anthropocene’ signals the onset of a new epoch in human history, which has affected the planet’s ability to sustain the necessary conditions for biological life (see 37.1. Introduction in Chapter 37 on Dipesh Chakrabarty). As humans are forced to reckon with the ongoing climate crisis, Spinoza has re-emerged as a crucial interlocutor for a wide range of contemporary political thinkers, from Marxists and Feminists, to radical ecologists. Despite his obvious shortcomings and omissions regarding race, colonialism, and gender, Spinoza remains one of the foremost philosophers of the ‘radical Enlightenment’.
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