Benedict de Spinoza

Who was Benedict de Spinoza?

Benedict (Baruch) de Spinoza (1632-1677) stands out as a loner among seventeenth century thinkers. He was excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam for his unorthodox ideas. After that, he had few contacts with other Jews, but because he was a Jew his Dutch acquaintances were not friendly to him.

In 1660, he moved from Amsterdam to Rijnsburg and then to Voorburg. In 1663, he wrote about Descartes' philosophy in Renati Descartes Principiorum Philosophiae, Pars Iet II. His Tractatus Theologico Politicus was published anonymously in 1670. He was then offered the chair of philosophy at Heidelberg University, in 1673, but he turned it down because he did not want to jeopardize his peace of mind. He thought that academics were constantly arguing among themselves and engaging in petty disputes and grudges. He knew Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and corresponded with the Royal Society members Henry Oldenburg and Christian Huygens.

Spinoza's Ethics (1677) was published after his death, as was his Tractatus de Intellectis Emendatione (1677). That Spinoza preferred to think on his own, with little outside influence, made his work very distinctive, but it also was part of the reason for a prolonged lack of recognition of him as a philosopher.

What was Spinoza's philosophical goal?

Spinoza's goal was the very practical one of how a person ought to live in the world. He sought a good, or a value, that would allow independence from the unpredictable, unpleasant, and uncontrollable aspects of human life, and he concluded that the ultimate good was awareness of one's place in nature, together with an acceptance of the

Benedict de Spinoza concluded that the ultimate good was to discover one's place in nature (iStock).

Benedict de Spinoza concluded that the ultimate good was to discover one's place in nature (iStock).

natural order. Natural science, politics, ethics, education, and even technology were part of what had to be understood to achieve this complete understanding. Before such understanding, Spinoza said that the human mind was like a worm in a bloodstream that thought each drop of blood was an isolated thing, instead of part of a system within an organism. His philosophical task was to describe the whole in which individual humans were parts.

What was Spinoza's philosophical system?

Although Spinoza's system had very strong theological elements and he was motivated to construct it for the ethical purpose of determining how to live, he did not base morality on God, but rather on adequate human knowledge. Such knowledge would enable both an ability to control the passions and live peacefully with others. However, indirectly, this knowledge of nature amounted to knowledge of God because, according to Spinoza, God was present throughout nature.

Spinoza wrote philosophy in the form of geometrical proofs and began with axioms from which he proved his conclusions. First, he made the assumption that substance exists. Substance, he continued, has infinite attributes, but humans can perceive only two of these: extension and thought (or matter and mind).

Spinoza's metaphysics was a monism. Only one thing existed and that was God. God, according to Spinoza, was "a being absolutely infinite." Although God had infinite attributes, each one of which expressed His nature without limitation to itself, humans can perceive or understand only two of God's infinite attributes: thought and material bodies, or extension. Each attribute has both infinite modes and finite modes, although finite modes are infinite in number. A person, for example, is one finite mode of God, existing in God as both a mode of thought and a mode of extension.

One way of understanding Spinoza is that mind and matter are different ways of viewing the same thing that exists in God. As everything that exists, God is nature, but nature is also God. Spinoza distinguished between natura naturans, or God in his active role as creating, and natural naturata, or what we humans perceive as nature.

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