Is Spinoza the most overrated philosopher in history?

Another puff-piece on Spinoza.  It seems like every internet article I see on Spinoza is like this.  The genius.  The colossus.  The daring free-thinker who created the modern world.  And yet they never share a single interesting idea this supposedly great philosopher ever had.  I hope my more philosophically-knowledgeable readers will forgive an uninformed rant.

I haven’t read Spinoza myself–just the sections on him in a few history of philosophy books; that’s because nobody has ever given me a reason to think I should.  It’s not that he believed some crazy things, like the universe being one substance.  Leibniz also believed some crazy things–who takes monads seriously anymore (if anyone even did at the time)?  And yet, Leibniz’s ideas–his philosophical ideas, so not even counting calculus–keep popping up.  The principle of sufficient reason, possible worlds, his relational theory of space–I bump into Leibniz ideas while reading about philosophical problems that interest me.  I’ve never yet bumped into a Spinoza idea.  It’s not that Spinoza’s ideas are wrong either.  Pretty much everybody agrees that Descartes’ dualism is wrong, but we do it the honor of arguing against it.  We realize that Descartes has permanently altered the mind-body problem, clarifying issues in a way they hadn’t been before and throwing out a solution that, while we don’t agree with it, will always in a sense be “on the table”.  Avoiding Cartesian dualism requires conscious effort.  I’ve never felt the danger of falling into Spinozist pantheism.

I feel confirmed in my decision to stay away from the “great” Dutch philosopher when I see that even his enthusiasts (as in the linked article) can’t give me a good reason to look into him.  To me, equating God with nature is confusion, not subtlety, and the article doesn’t give me any reason to reconsider.  Even its author thinks invoking him for “deep ecology” is silly.

As an aside, I was amused by this:

Today, we value any early modern who sides against Descartes’ dualism between mind and body.

Well, there were those scholastics that sided against Cartesian dualism, but they’re icky so we don’t value them.

Why are people so impressed with Spinoza?  It seems to have more to do with biography than ideas.  Spinoza was an excommunicated Jew.  Descartes and Leibniz were Christians in fairly good standing with their denominations.  (Descartes got a book on the Index, but that was a lot easier to do in those days and didn’t mean you were kicked out of the Church.) Atheists like to comfort themselves by saying that they were secret free-thinkers.  Of course, it’s impossible to disprove such a claim, but there’s no reason to accept it either.  In any case, it would contradict both of their philosophies, in which God plays pivotal roles.  So, then, Spinoza is an appropriate hero for our current generation of ethnically Jewish but atheist philosophers.  Descartes and Leibniz are not; they don’t fit the alienated outsider role.

Or is there something about the guy that I’m missing?

14 Responses

  1. Read the wikipedia entry. Not someone I would care to subscribe to as a philosopher.

    In fact, he seems rather naive. But it could be just the 5 centuries difference.

  2. The following words of Bertrand Russell (taken, I think, from his “History of Western Philosophy”) may shed some light on why liberals love Spinoza:

    “Spinoza (1634–77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness.”

    A Jew and therefore an outsider, actually persecuted by his religious authorities (unlike most of the “Christian” atheists and agnostics, who remained members in good standing of their societies and churches), relentlessly atheistic and iconoclastic – no wonder they love him.

  3. It is worthy of note that George Boole invented modern logic so that he could debug some errors in Spinoza.

    Spinoza’s most important idea was a notion of God that we might call “pantheistic.” Of course, Spinoza was not the first person to articulate pantheism.

  4. Spinoza is venerated by modernists and atheists, mainly because he was persecuted by his religious community, and because he was religious outcast; not because of his philosophy. We can see something similar in case of Giordano Bruno, since most of his works belongs to realm of mysticism and occult. Similar nonsense we can see in movie “Agora” where Neoplatonist mystical pagan philosopher Hypathia was declared as “Atheist”, simply because she was killed by christian mob in Alexandria, and therefore persecuted by Christians.

    I have read Spinoza, and I haven’t seen his notion that universe is one substance.
    Nor did I have noticed his famous “pantheism”. As a matter of fact, Spinoza’s work can be interpreted in fully monotheistic manner.
    Materialist and atheistic interpretations of Spinoza, I believe, are vulgar interpretations of philosophical term.

    Word “substance” in English language, mostly have material meaning, like chemical substance. In philosophy however, substance means “underlying” or “something that lies beneath” or sub-stantia in Latin. Such substance is not necessary material, but it can be immaterial or spiritual. In Spinoza’s system substance is source of two attributes: extension (res extensa) and comprehension, thinking, mind (res cogitans), or body and mind. From these two, and their combination follows various modes (modus) which create our world.

    Spinoza transformed Carthesian body-soul dualism, by uniting them in single source, which is above body or soul, and gives them being. His “substance”, is not the same things as attributes, is not material or spiritual. Attributes are not the same thing as modes, and all three are not the same thing, but follow one from another. Not to mention that his substance is not universe, but something that underlies universe.

    Great source of confusion is his claim “Deus sive natura”- God or nature. In modern meaning, nature is interpreted mostly in purely material and sensual terms. Spinoza’s ” nature” is more closely related to Johaness Scotus Eriugena’s Neoplatonist idea of nature, exposed in his “De divisione naturae”, then in modern meaning. Mostly in the sense of nature as source of being, not in a sense of observable material universe.

  5. Hi Wrangel,

    Thanks for giving me your take on Spinoza, since you’ve actually read him. It has also been my experience that when you get to the original texts, famous philosophers were less “radical” (i.e. agreeable to modern prejudices) than we are led to believe.

    If all Spinoza said was that a human being is a single substance, no Aristotelian or Scholastic would have raised an eyebrow. Do you know if he ever claimed that the universe/nature is one substance in the Aristotelian sense of the word? That would be a real innovation, perhaps a pantheistic one. On the other hand, it might just mean that the universe as a whole has an organic structure, like a “super-organism”. I believe this is false, but it’s not necessarily heretical.

  6. Bonald,

    Spinoza is very clear that there exists but one substance, and that this substance is God (Ethics, Part I, Prop. 14). From this one substance, infinitely many modifications thereof follow in infinitely many ways (Part I, Prop. 16), some of which are human beings. Any given human being, in turn, consists of the same modification of the Divine Nature considered both insofar as It is an extended thing and insofar as It is a thinking thing (Part II, Def. 1 & Prop. 11, Cor.).

    Regarding his supposed identification of God with Nature: as far as I can tell, the sole basis of this accusation is a solitary phrase used twice in the Ethics, both times in Part IV (Preface & Prop. 4). That anyone should attempt to summarise Spinoza’s theology in less than a sentence (and using a phrase selected from a part of the Ethics not directly pertaining to God, at that!) is, frankly, rather embarassing.

  7. Hi Leo,

    Thanks for the clarification. Let me see if I’ve got it right now: Everything in nature is a modification of God, but God is distinct from His modifications, so nature and God aren’t exactly identical for Spinoza.

  8. You’re welcome 🙂

    Yes, that is a good summary of Spinoza’s view. God can only be considered the same as Nature for Spinoza insofar as He is the active principle of the universe, the way we might talk about Nature doing nothing in vain, Nature ordering all things sweetly, etc.

  9. […] Most overrated philosopher:  Spinoza […]

  10. I disagree with distinguishing between God and Nature. Spinoza was very much opposed to the human tendency to anthropomorphize God. In fact, he wrote that if a triangle thought of God it would conceive of God as a triangle. God, Nature, and Substance are in fact one and the same thing in Spinoza’s system. Substance is that which is in itself and conceived through itself. God, as the perfectly infinite being, is the only cause of itself and thus equal to substance. Nature is the whole system of causal relations, ie what we would call the universe. Everything follows from God’s essence (God’s essence being the infinitude of attributes). There are two attributes which humans can conceive, extension and thought (body and mind). Extension and thought are not two ontologically distinct substances, as Descartes thought, but rather two different attributes of the same substance (God as thought, and God as extension). Human beings are finite modes of God/Nature’s infinitude.

  11. Having read Roger Scruton’s book on him, and a few articles online, as best I can tell Spinoza is remembered for the following:

    1. He first articulated, and attempt to solve, the interaction problem in Descartes’ philosophy. Much of his work on what a “substance” is is related to this. He was trying to figure out the relationship between the physical world and the mental world.
    2. He created a sort of rationalist religion that has appealed to many individual intellectuals who don’t want to go full on in for atheism.
    3. He was one of the founders of modern Biblical criticism. This has lead to lots of mischief, but also some genuine advances in knowledge.
    4. He was an early advocate for something like political liberalism: freedom and tolerance and all that. He attempted to come up with an ethical justification for that.

    1 and 3 seem to be of the most permanent value.

  12. RE: Point 2.

    Spinoza seems ultimately to be the kind of Platonist that Bruce Charlton describes here. He writes rather passionately about the search for (a rather impersonal) truth as the highest good, and has accordingly been taken as a kind of guru for intellectuals.

  13. Don’t you find it a little bit absurd that you’re calling a philosopher overrated without reading a single word he wrote?

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