10-29-2007 05:51 PM
I looked at Ethics and it looked way beyond me. Thanks.
10-29-2007 08:00 PM
First off, thanks for the kind words about my own book! And I can well sympathize with your taking a look at the "Ethics" and finding it a bit formidable. As I write in "Betrayng Spinoza," my students almost always have that reaction when they first look at his highly artificial style of presenting his ideas but as we work through the book together eventually they make their way into it. It's hard to do that through just a book. A class is much better. The two books I myself would recommend are Stuart Hampshire's book on "Spinoza and Spinozism" and Jonathan Bennett's book "A Study of Spinoza." Roger Scruton has a tiny little book called "Spinoza" (only about 50 pages!) published by Routledge that might be the best place to start. I'm also fond of Yovel's "SPinoza and Other Heretics."
10-30-2007 02:27 PM
Thanks for those suggestions. Readers can find the books Rebecca recommends below:
RebeccaGoldstein wrote: Dear Tucsonwillie: First off, thanks for the kind words about my own book! And I can well sympathize with your taking a look at the "Ethics" and finding it a bit formidable. As I write in "Betrayng Spinoza," my students almost always have that reaction when they first look at his highly artificial style of presenting his ideas but as we work through the book together eventually they make their way into it. It's hard to do that through just a book. A class is much better. The two books I myself would recommend are Stuart Hampshire's book on "Spinoza and Spinozism" and Jonathan Bennett's book "A Study of Spinoza." Roger Scruton has a tiny little book called "Spinoza" (only about 50 pages!) published by Routledge that might be the best place to start. I'm also fond of Yovel's "SPinoza and Other Heretics."
- Spinoza and Spinozism by Stuart Hampshire
- Study of Spinoza's Ethics by Jonathan Francis Bennett
- Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton
- Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Marrano of Reason, Vol. 1 by Yirmiyahu Yovel
- Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Adventures of Immanence, Vol. 2 by Yirmiyahu Yovel
10-31-2007 11:15 AM
I loved your book and the wonderful way you interwove your own experience with that of your Spinoza.
I have read Stewart's book about Spinoza and Demasio's as well. I am left with the feeling that the excommunication imposed seemed exaggerated. Do we have evidence that there was anything beyond his beliefs that led to this, or am I coming at this with an anachronistic sensibilty?
11-02-2007 06:09 AM
11-03-2007 07:22 PM
That’s a reasonable aim, I think, or at least it seems so at first blush. Let’s call a life that does just that, a life that maximizes our feelings of well-being no matter what contingencies might befall us, a reasonable life.
Spinoza agrees with you that love is the most wonderful feeling that a person can have, expanding a person outward to feel a deep and abiding connection with something outside of themselves. None of us wants to feel isolated, unconnected, and love is the emotion of connectedness. But our love can be directed toward different sorts of things, and of course, given Spinoza’s understanding of the reasonable life, he’s in search of a love that will minimize the dependence on factors beyond the lover’s control.
So, for example, suppose I love fame. My being famous, of course, depends on getting a certain reaction from people—at the least, their knowing who I am. I might want even more from them: admiration for my accomplishments, for example. I’ll use the means at my disposal, my circumstances, talents, etc, to try to become famous, but fame being subject to all sorts of contingencies beyond my control, it may not happen for me, in which case my life will feel greatly impoverished to me. I’ll be dissatisfied, maybe even feel, if my love of fame is so great, that my life is meaningless. Of course, if, against very great odds, I do achieve fame, I’m going to feel pleasure. But then again, no matter how famous I may get to be, there will always be the fear that the fame will go away, or that I’m just not famous enough, whatever that may mean; there’s insecurity built into this sort of love.
I think a lot of us would feel sympathy for a Spinozist criticism of the love of fame. What a stupid ambition, we might say, one that makes a person perpetually insecure. We might try to talk some sense into the lover of fame, try to talk them out of caring so much about what other people think about them. What does it matter, we might say, you’re still the same person, whether others recognize you or not.
Well, Spinoza feels similarly about romantic love. The lover of fame wants a certain sort of reaction from lots of people. The romantic lover wants a reaction only from one person, but it’s a highly specific sort of reaction that he wants and nothing else will do. If I’m in love with a person I want that person to love me just as I love him. I’ll do what I can to bring this reciprocal reaction about. But the other's reciprocation is subject to all sorts of contingencies beyond my control, and it may not happen for me, in which case my life will feel significantly impoverished.
What Spinoza would say to you, my friend, is that you’ve been lucky. Very lucky. You’ve found a lifelong love that’s been reciprocated. But this fortunate state of affairs wasn’t entirely a matter of factors that were under your control. Of course, you worked at this love; it never just happens. And you probably were sagacious, too, in choosing your love partner. But still it could have happened that you did all these same things—exercised sagacity in choosing a love partner, labored hard at your love—and yet everything fell apart. That’s what it means to say you’ve been lucky. And Spinoza’s idea of the reasonable life is a life in which the sense of well-being is as little dependent upon sheer good luck as is possible.
The reaction of many is to say, “Ok Spinoza, I think you’ve made a good case for what the reasonable life would be like. In fact, you’ve explained and defended it so well that I can honestly say I don’t WANT the reasonable life. Better to be unreasonable, to live a life that increases our reliance on sheer good luck, then to live the loveless life you’ve described.”
To which Spinoza might respond, “Ah, but you’ve missed the point. The reasonable life isn’t a loveless life. It’s just that so few have experienced the love that comes from reason ,and nothing but reason, that they can’t conceive of it and its attendant bliss, which must be worked on at least as hard as the marital bliss that you’ve been fortunate enough to experience.”
All of which is to say that I don't think we have to infer a broken heart on Spinoza's part to explain his view of the reasonable life.
11-03-2007 07:37 PM
Thanks so much for the kind words. And you're right that Spinoza's kherem calls for some sort of explanation. His community used this means of communal control fairly often, but almost always the kherem was of limited duration. The person was separated from the community for a certain amount of time and then did what was required for re-entrance and then was accepted back in. The vehemence and finality of Spinoza's kherem has long intrigued scholars, especially since the kid (23 years old!) hadn't published anything yet and, from all accounts, kept a relatively low profile, not standing on a soap box and spouting his heretical views. We don't even know how much of his heretical viewpoint had even been developed by that point. My own view is that he'd indicated to his community that unlike the other excommunicants--even the infamous Uriel da Costa--Spinoza didn't care whether he was excommunicated or not. His identity wasn't tied up with the community, and that was the one unforgivable sin for that community. And his indication of this may have been more a matter of a practical action he took rather than an utterance of his beliefs. In his lawsuit with his sister Rebekah he went to the civil authorities rather than to the rabbinical court--the beit din--to have it settled. In other words, he was indicating his independence from the community. Later, in his mature philosophy, he works out why the free and rational person should never allow his identity to be determined by what community he happens to have been born into. But it's a hunch (at least of mine)that he'd thought this for some time, and indicated as much--perhaps through his law suit, perhaps through other indirect means--to his community, which responded with that finality and vehemence that is historically understandable, given their own particular traumas, even if, from our perspective, "exaggerated," as you say.
11-04-2007 03:37 AM
Thank you for your response to my question and time you spent clarifying and correcting my thoughts about Baruch Spinoza. I have read your book BETRAYING SPINOZA three times and I am in the process of going for the fourth read. Yesterday I did what Spinoza did and took time out for reflective thoughts about life. We had a Rabbi in the service who thoroughly enjoyed the Sabbath and I thought I would both immate him(the Rabbi) and Spinoza. Although I do not have the creative and insightful mind of Baruch Spinoza I certainly could endeavor to have his thoughts influence my life rather than the mindless attempts to influence me via television, advertisement,and all the other media efforts to control my thoughts. We just do not take the time for reflective thoughts. I thank you for writing Betraying Spinoza and the wonderful and enjoyable way your described his life and the courage he had in living his thoughts and putting them in action through his writings and teachings.
11-04-2007 06:00 PM
I have to say that I find your honest attempt to grapple with this formidable philosopher's thought, while at the same time honestly confessing to the (loving) ways in which you're entangled in life's contingencies in non-Spinozist ways, is wonderful to me. Even if we ultimately reject--or at least qualify--Spinoza's vision of the Good Life, still just seeing things from his point of view--seeing what it would be like to live as much as is humanly possible sub specie aeternitatus--gives us a new perspective from which to contemplate and evaluate life. What Spinoza promises us is that if we struggle hard enough and see ourselves from the point of view of radical objectivity then even if we can't maintain that strenuous point of view (and maybe we consciously decide we don't want to) still we'll never go back all the way to the dark narrowness with which we started. And that dark narrowness is the breeding grounds for all the misery that humans inflict on one another.
Philosophy isn't an intellectual game. We philosophize with our whole selves, or we don't philosophize at all. You, my friend, are philosophizing.
11-05-2007 05:30 PM - last edited on 11-06-2007 10:50 AM by Rahel
Dear Rahel: I hope you get this message. A member of our Jewish Study group suggested that I read Betraying Spinoza, so, I found a used copy and read it. Then when I mentioned to my friend that I had read it in two nights, she admitted that she had never read it. She did however meet the authoress one evening at a gathering.
There are two things that I would like to do. The first: go and visit the house Spinoza lived in in Leiden. The Second: I would like to know where I could find again the discription of Spinoza's excommunication from the Amsterdam Synagogue. All I can remember from when I read it years ago, is that with every accusation that was stated against him publicly in the Synagogue, they put out a candle, until the entire Synagogue was in darkness.
Would you have any idea where the excommunication minutes can be found?
Message Edited by Rahel on 11-06-2007 10:25 AM
Message Edited by Rahel on 11-06-2007 10:50 AM
11-06-2007 12:07 PM
As far as the writ of excommunication that was read out on July 27, 1656,a Portuguese version was entered into the community's record and is in the Jewish Archives of the Municipal Archives of the City of Amsterdam. The translation that I use in the book comes from an article called "Why Was Spinoza Excommunicated?" by Asa Kasher and Shlomo Biderman and is to be found in a book called "Sceptics,Millenarians,and Jews," edited by Davis Katz and Jonathan Israel.
So far as what actually took place during the excommunication ceremony: The heavily symbolic drama of having the members holding black candles which are then extinguished after the kherem is pronounced, blowing a shofar, etc. apparently did take place during various kherem ceremonies. However, there is no evidence that these fearsome theatrics took place on July 27, 1656. Jean Maximilien Lucas, who was a French Protestant refugee living in Holland and who had personally known Spinoza, writes in his biography of Spinoza, "La Vie et l'esprit de Monsieur Benoit de Spinoza," (which can be read in English under the title "The Oldest Biography of Spinoza") that this "black spectacle" did not transpire in the case of Spinoza: "With respect to this, it should be remarked that the blowing of the horn, the inverting of the cndles and the vessel filled with blood are rituals which are observed only in cases of blasphemy. Otherwise they are content simply to proclaim the excommunication, as was done in the case of Spinoza, who was not convicted of blasphemy but only of a lack of respect for Moses and for the law."
11-07-2007 03:37 PM
I'm wondering if, for the sake of some of our readers who may be less well versed in philosophy, you could perhaps explain a bit more some of the terms you use in Chapter 1. Maybe starting with the terms a priori, and deductive and inductive reasoning? And readers, please don't feel shy about asking more such questions!
11-07-2007 08:21 PM
I'm on the road right now and so I don't have a copy of "Betraying Spinoza" with me (meant to bring one!) I'd actually like, perhaps in another email, to share some of these travels with readers, almost all of them motivated by "Betraying SPinoza." Tomorrow I'll be speaking (together with my daughter, the novelist Yael Goldstein) at Austin's Jewish Book Fair. And then I fly to NY, where I'll be speaking on Saturday morning at the Academy of Science, at a conference organized by the Center for Inquiry. This has been pretty much how my life has been going since I published "Betraying SPinoza," boomeranging between Jewish and religiously-skeptical organizations. It's interesting that Jews, skeptics, atheists all claim him as their own. This brings up a question I hope we'll get to: was SPinoza an atheist? What does all his talk about God amount to? In what sense is his God, which he identifies with nature, godlike enough to merit the term? And what's Jewish about him anyway? These questions lie at the heart of the book, and it's interesting to me that my travels over this last year have in a certain way mirrored these questions.
Anyway, because I don't have the book with me, I don't know all the philosophical terms I use in the first chapter, so I'll just talk about the three you mention. All three of them come from the area of philosophy called epistemology: the study of knowledge itself. Epistemology asks questions like these: what is required in order for someone to really know something? What's the difference between knowledge and mere belief, even if the belief happens to be true? There is a difference! So let's say I happen to wake up every morning believing that it's Monday because every night I have the dream that the next day is MOnday. On Mondays I wake up believing it's Monday,based on my dream. That belief will be true--on Mondays-- but you might want to say that I don't really know it's true, because the grounds I have for believing it are pretty bad. Six mornings out of seven they give me a false belief. This introduces us to the notion of grounds for belief, and evaluations concerning what are good and what are bad grounds for belief. Knowledge, as opposed to belief--even true belief--requires good grounds. SO now the question is: what counts as good grounds? Do they have to be grounds that rule out the possibiity of falsity? Or do the grounds have to be such as to show merely that the belief is probably true? These are questions philosophers disagree over. (Notice how in philosophy, one question always introduces a host of others,more and more complicated.) These questions just have to do with what knowledge IS, what it requires. The next question is how do we acquire it. (Obviously, you've got to have some views about the first question--what IS knowledge--in order to tackle the second.) Those terms you ask about all have to do with this second question. A priori knowledge is knowledge that can't be falsified by experience. Whatever it is that provides the grounds for this sort of knowledge,these grounds have a certain independence from experience. (This is different from saying that the concepts are independent of eperience or that the knowledge is innate, that is that we're actually born knowing it. So take the truth that 2 + 2 =4. In order to understand what this means, to have the concepts we need to have learned about numbers and equality etc, which requires experience. And babies aren't born knowing 2 +2 =4. Aprioricity is an epistemological concept, not a psychological one. But when a philosopher says that 2 +2 =4 she means that no experience would count as evidence against it. If I were to have two goldfish in my tank and add another two and count five of them the next day, I'm going to think either I counted wrong, and so re-count, or that one of them gave birth, or maybe that I unknowlingly slipped another one into the tank when I thought I was only adding two. I'm not going to call the Science Times editor and announce that in my fishtank basic arithmetic is violated. No experience would count as violating certain truths, such as 2 + 2= 4, that's what's meant by calling some truths a priori.
Deduction is the sort of thinking we use when we figure out what follows from what. It's closely connected with a priori truths, since we figure out what follows from what a priori. So my daughter is sitting right next to me right now. If you know that to be true then you can deduce a priori that R.G. is not alone at the moment.
Which I'm not. I also know inductively that my daughter is quite hungry at the moment. I know because she keeps telling me she is and I know, from past experience, that whenever she says she's hungry and we go out and eat, she eats like a person who's truly hungry.
Which is why I'm going to leave off this little epistemology lesson right now and go find a restaurant in Austin TX!
11-29-2007 11:48 PM
Our local Spinoza society had a discussion a month ago on Spinoza's proof for the nature of God as the one substance. This sort of metaphysical reasoning struck me as archaic and lacking in credibility from a contemporary perspective. Moreover, without a contextualization in the metaphysical mode of thinking of Spinoza's time, this sort of reasoning is opaque and virtually unintelligible. The only way I think it can work for us who don't believe this stuff is an explication of how Spinoza struggled his way into his metaphysical formulations based on the philosophical heritage he inherited.
A couple people in our group recommended this book:
Wolfson, Harry Austryn. The Philosophy of Spinoza: Unfolding the Latent Processes
of His Reasoning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press,  c1934.
How do you think this book stacks up against more recent works you recommended?
11-30-2007 01:51 PM
However, I have always found Wolfson's, as so many others', explications of Spinoza's identification of God with "the one substance" to be more obscure than it need be. This is, I think, because Spinoza's use of the word "substance" is understood in Aristotelian terms (Wolfson sees Aristotle as being one of the three major influences on Spinoza, the other two being Descartes and Maimonides,) and Spinoza, I believe, had something quite different in mind when he used the word 'substance.' Comparisons to Aristotle are more obfuscatory than helpful, I think (and, in spirit, Spinoza was much closer to Plato than to Aristotle.)
See if this reconstruction of Spinoza is at all helpful to you. Notice that I completely avoid the term "substance," and pretty much avoid Spinoza's creaky terminology. Nonetheless I submit to you that this is the sort of reasoning that lay behind Spinoza's conception of God and his identification of God with the world, in other words Deus sive natura.
1. Let us agree to call, by definition, that which explains its own existence 'God.'
2. All facts have explanations.
(This is the fundamental axiom in understanding Spinoza. In "Betryaing Spinoza" I call this axiom "the Presumption of Reason." Leibniz, of course, called it the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Spinoza, as I discuss in the book, seemed to regard this propsition as a principle of logic, not as a metaphysical axiom. Therefore, he rarely explicitly states it, but rather uses it in his deductions. I speak about this presumption, which is essential to understanding Spinoza, at some length in the book. Just how essential it is in Spinoza's conception of God, and his identification of God with the world itself, should be clear from the rest of the proof as I've reconstructed it.)
3. The fact that we have this particular world [rather than some other possible one] must itself have an explanation (from 2).
4. The explanation for why we have this particular world must lie either within the nature of the world itself or outside of it.
5. Let us assume the explanation for why we have this particular world lies outside of the nature of the world itself.
6. If the explanation lies outside of the nature of the world, it must be because God lies outside of the world [God is transcendent] and has chosen the world to exist as it does.
(This is how conventional religions interprets God's explanatory relation to the world, i.e. God is the transcendent cause of the world.)
7. Either transcendent God had a reason for choosing this world or he didn't.
(Again, just logic.)
8. If God had a reason for choosing this particular world, then there is something about the nature of the world itself that demanded God's choice and whatever that something is constitutes the reason for God's choice and therefore for why this particular world exists.
9. If God had a reason for choosing this particular world then appeal to God is redundant (from 8).
10 If God didn't have a reason, then we are still left without a reason, and so appeal to a transcendent God doesn't help.
11. Appeal to a transcendent God to explain why we have this particular world must necessarily fail(from 9 and 10).
12. Therefore, the explanation for why we have this particular world must lie within the nature of the world itself (from 4 and 11).
13. Therefore, the nature of the world explains itself (from 12).
14. Therefore, the world is itself God (from 1 and 13).
The next part of this understanding of Spinoza's system is to ask how it could be that the world explains itself. It could only explain itself if it is the only possible world, or in other words, if logic itself constitutes the ontological facts. (One of the ways Spinoza puts this last point is that the order and connection between ideas is the same as the order and connection between things [Ethics, II, vii]}. As I discuss in the book, basically Spinoza's conception of the world (and therefore of God) is animated logic.
Of course, all of this relates to the other thread that we have going in this discusssion group: is Spinoza a theist or atheist? His conception of God diverges so radically from the conventional ones ("He who loves God cannot desire that God would love him in return") that there is certainly reason to regard him as an atheist. The thing which he has claimed to prove necessarily is the world itself, understood at its deepest level, the final Theory of Everything to which many contemporary physicists aspire. In fact, it's fascinating to see that when we strip Spinoza of the creaky philosophical terminology that he had inherited how radically contemporary he sounds, chiming in with an answer to the question that is rampant among physicists today, in their discusssions of such topics as the anthropic principle.
Sorry to be so wordy, but it's not so easy to convey Spinoza's basic reasoning! And I do think that, all in all, his reasoning is less obsolete and obscure then it's often presented as being. It all stems from his deep intuition that there must always be an explanation, an intuition shared by many, including Einstein and Godel. (Einstein famously always described himself as a Spinozist. If you understand my reconstruction of Spinoza's argument above, then you understand why. The final Theory of Eveything must explain everything, even why it's the final theory.)