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Benedictus de Spinoza (1632 - 1677)

Related: 1600s - Netherlands - enlightenment - philosopy

Radical Enlightenment (Jonathan Israel, 2003) argues that Baruch or Benedict Spinoza, played a far more central role in the development of Enlightenment ideas than is generally accepted.


Benedictus de Spinoza (November 24, 1632 - February 21, 1677), named Baruch Spinoza by his synagogue elders and known as Bento de Spinoza or Bento d'Espiñoza in the community in which he grew up. Along with René Descartes and Gottfried Wilhelm Freiherr von Leibniz, he was one of the great rationalists of 17th-century philosophy. He is considered the founder of modern Biblical criticism.

Born in Amsterdam to Spanish-Portuguese Jews, he gained fame for his positions of pantheism and neutral monism, as well as the fact that his Ethics was written in the form of postulates and definitions, as though it were a geometry treatise. In the summer of 1656, he was excommunicated from the Jewish community for his claims that God is the mechanism of nature and the universe, and the Bible is a metaphorical and allegorical work used to teach the nature of God, both of which were based on a form of Cartesianism. Following his excommunication, he adopted the first name Benedictus (the Latin equivalent of his given name, Baruch). Since the public reactions to the Theologico-Political Treatise were not favourable to Spinoza or his brand of Cartesianism, he abstained from publishing his works. The Ethics was published after his death, in the Opera postuma edited by his friends.

Known as both the "Greatest Christian" and the "Greatest Atheist", Spinoza contended that "God" and "Nature" were two names for the same reality, namely the single substance that underlies the universe and of which all lesser "entities" are actually modes or modifications. He contended that "Deus sive Natura" ("God or Nature") was a being of infinitely many attributes, of which extension and thought were two. His account of the nature of reality, then, seems to treat the physical and mental worlds as two different, parallel "subworlds" that neither overlap nor interact. This formulation is a historically significant panpsychist solution to the mind-body problem known as neutral monism.

Spinoza was a thoroughgoing determinist who held that absolutely everything that happens occurs through the operation of necessity. For him, even human behaviour is fully determined, freedom being our capacity to know we are determined and to understand why we act as we do. So freedom is not the possibility to say "no" to what happens to us but the possibility to say "yes" and fully understand why things should necessarily happen that way.

Spinoza's philosophy has much in common with Stoicism, but he differed sharply from the Stoics in one important respect: he utterly rejected their contention that reason could defeat emotion. On the contrary, he contended, an emotion can be displaced or overcome only by a stronger emotion. For him, the crucial distinction was between active and passive emotions, the former being those that are rationally understood and the latter those that are not.--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baruch_Spinoza [Sept 2004]

Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain - Antonio Damasio

  • Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain - Antonio Damasio [Amazon.com]
    As he seeks to unlock the secrets of such things as joy and sorrow, Antonio Damasio pursues a unifying theory in Looking for Spinoza. Why Spinoza? The philosopher, whom Damasio calls a "protobiologist," firmly linked mind and body, paving the way for modern ideas of neurophysiology. Damasio examines this linkage, which ran counter to all scientific and religious thinking of Spinoza's day, and lays out the reasoning and evidence behind its truth. As he has in his previous books on the subject (Descartes' Error and The Feeling of What Happens), Damasio is careful to use clear examples from life to explain the often dry and difficult science of the brain. When he wants readers to understand, for instance, brain stem control of emotions, he offers an Oliver Sacks-style case study of a man whose stroke left him unable to keep from bursting into tears or laughter at inappropriate times.
    Damasio also defines his terms, which is crucial, as he means something very specific when he says feeling ("always hidden, like all mental images") instead of emotion ("actions or movements... visible to others as they occur in the face, in the voice, in specific behaviors"). Using an impressive array of biological and psychological research, Damasio makes a compelling case for his idea of the feeling brain as crucial for survival and sense of self. But this isn't just a book about brain science. It's a record of an intellectual journey, a diary of Damasio's musings about history, philosophy, and Spinoza's life, all wrapped up in a simply astonishing explanation of a subject most of us don't give a thought to--the feelings that we live by. --Therese Littleton for amazon.com

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