Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Spinoza (A Book Note)

Thomas Riggins

SPINOZA AND SPINOZISM by Stuart Hampshire, Oxford University Press, 2005, 206 pp.
Reviewed by Avishai Margalit in "The New York Review of Books" October 20, 2005.

This is a reworking of the book "Spinoza: An Introduction to His Philosophical Thought" with some revisions and new interpretive introductions. Hampshire died last year at 89 and the original version of the book was published back in 1951.

It is important to know something about the philosophy of Spinoza as he was the great grandfather, as it were, of Marxism (Hegel being the grandfather). Engel’s famous definition of freedom as the recognition of necessity comes from Spinoza, for example.

Spinoza (1632-1677) is usually associated with Descartes and the scientific revolution. He has been called the first secular thinker in modern Europe. His philosophy is even more important today because it is not based on any appeal to religion or supernatural causes. Theologians like to say the universe was created by God but God is uncreated – being the cause of himself.

But Margalit says, "Only nature as a whole, according to Spinoza, is the cause of itself, meaning that nature should be explainable by what actually happens in nature and that no appeal to a transcendent reality, or separate God, is necessary for explaining its existence." Our friends the fundamentalists are four hundred years behind on their reading lists.

Margalit also points out that Spinoza "was a prime mover in shaping the European Enlightenment," and "that his skepticism about divine authority radicalized a generation of intellectuals in the last years of the seventeenth century." This opinion is based on J. Israel’s "Radical Enlightenment" (Oxford, 2002). Spinoza is thus the great grandfather of the modern secular outlook as well as of Marxism.

Hampshire, who thinks that biology rather than mathematics, was the inspiration for Spinoza’s thought, is quoted as saying Spinoza "believed his contemporaries could not even try to understand his thought, because its conclusions were evidently incompatible with their deepest religious loyalties and moral prejudices." Those conclusions were that the universe is all there is and that the traditional religions are illusions based on over active imaginations that have abandoned "the critical power of reason."

Today the fate of the world is in the hands of people who have abandoned reason and science for the delusional reality of their imaginations. In this world, the more we can learn about Spinoza the better. Hampshire’s last book is a parting gift to us and a welcome introduction to Spinoza’s "Ethics" and "Tractatus Theologico-Politicus" (one of the best explanations of the Bible ever produced).