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The Key Concepts of the Philosophy of Baruch Spinoza

Updated on September 30, 2011

Baruch Spinoza was a 17th century Dutch philosopher, who was the most radical of the major rationalist thinkers. Unlike most major philosophers of his time, Spinoza was not thoroughly trained in philosophy or the sciences but showed a high aptitude for both subjects. Having a traditional Jewish upbringing, he learned a trade as a lens maker, which he worked his whole life while writing his philosophy in his off hours. Spinoza caused great controversy in the Jewish community because of his radical ideas about God and was accused on atheism. While his ideas about religion go against many traditional theistic ideas, his concepts have been influential on deist thinkers and many scientific minds that were sympathetic to the concept of God while rejecting organized religion.

Concept of God and Epistemology

While rejecting some of the ideas that were put forth by Descartes, Spinoza agreed with Descartes basic definition of God as a being who possessed all positive traits in infinite measure. Spinoza asserted that in order for one thing to be the cause of another thing then it must have something in common with the thing that it caused. Since God is the cause of all things, it would necessarily follow that he must have infinity of all traits including substance. Spinoza makes very complex arguments from which he tries to show that God “is substance” and therefore everything else that exists is in God.

This is a radical departing from the ideas of Descartes and from ideas that have been held about God in general. Jewish theology teaches of a God who is essentially immaterial and here Spinoza is saying the exact opposite. The phrase “God is everywhere” is often attached to the ideas of Spinoza but he does not mean this idea in a new age spiritual sense but a very practical and concrete sense. Everything that exists is not merely a creation of God but is in fact an extension of God. God is not the creator of nature, science and reason but all these things are a part of God because he possesses all positive traits. Anything that exists is a representation of a part of God.

For those who are critical of Spinoza, it is contended that this viewpoint simply results in materialism and as an extension, atheism. When Spinoza says that God has extension because as a creator of extended things he must also have this trait, he is not equating God to a strictly physical realm. When Spinoza examines the dualism of Descartes he does not see a problem in the mental expression and physical expression of human beings but simply sees this as two expressions of the same thing. This idea is essentially that while the human mind and physical processes seem to have nothing in common with each other they must be connected by a third thing, which makes up the essence of human beings and must contain traits of both physical extension and human thought processes.

Like Descartes and Leibnitz, Spinoza has been lumped squarely in the rationalist school of thought due to his doubt about sense perception and his belief in rationality to give clear knowledge of the world. Spinoza thought that sense data was simply imprecise and did not give any true knowledge about the world but instead gave us a look at a particular moment or circumstance. Reason and the understanding of the laws of nature was where our true knowledge came from and like Leibnitz he believed it took innate conceptions within the human brain in order to make sense of the data that was being obtained through the senses. Also like Descartes and Leibnitz, Spinoza thought that reason could prove God’s existence but he went even further than either of them, claiming that through nature and an understanding of its laws, it was possible to know God directly.

Free Will and Ethics

It seems to be a consequence of Spinoza’s views that free will must be denied. It was Spinoza’s contention that the concept of free will had been greatly misunderstood by previous thinkers. It seemed to him that man had always been perceived as being outside of nature whereas he had argued that man was part of nature, and by extension part of God. Spinoza felt the man was corrupted by his true nature from “the passions” which were stimulated by sensory perceptions. By keeping the passions at bay, man could be more in touch with his true nature and be a truly autonomous being and having freedom.

Regardless of this rather stoic view on free will, Spinoza’s ethics seem to be an unusual kind of egoism. Like Hobbes and later Max Stirner, Spinoza argued that what was good for an individual was pursuit of his own interest. However, Spinoza thought that the ultimate interest for any individual was the pursuit of knowledge. Since like most rationalists Spinoza believed that ultimate authority and knowledge comes from God, it is pursuit of this knowledge that will lead an individual to a greater understanding of God and the expression of his higher nature.

Because human beings did not always follow the path of reason, Spinoza agreed with Hobbes that a sovereign and a threat of force was necessary for a society to function. While Hobbes seemed to be a traditional materialist, where God played no part in the equation whatsoever, Spinoza had reached similar conclusions through his conception of God. Like Hobbes, he thought that ethics were ultimately dictated through the laws of nature and these were as clear as the laws of science once the capacity of reason within the human mind was applied properly.


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