Spinoza -|- Educational Philosophy Theory


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Benedictus (Baruch) Spinoza was born in Amsterdam in 1632, the son of a Jewish merchant, one of the many who had fled from Portugal and Spain to escape from religious persecution. From his youth, Spinoza showed himself to be a fearless searcher after truth, prepared to defend his views regardless of the consequences to himself. It was intended that he should carry on the family business, but in 1656, despite having been a diligent student of the Bible and the Talmud, he fell foul of the orthodox rabbis. He was offered 1,000 florins a year to keep silent, but refused and was cursed and expelled from the Jewish community for his "wrong opinions" and "horrible heresies." Fearing an attempt on his life, he had to flee from Amsterdam. He took up residence at Rhynsburg near Leyden, where he earned his living polishing lenses, while dedicating his spare time to his philosophical writings.

As an outcast himself, Spinoza became friendly with the members of some of the smaller Protestant sects, related to the Anabaptists, who were themselves the victims of persecution and who were open to discuss new ideas. At this time the ideas of Descartes were the subject of a raging controversy in Holland. In 1656, university professors were required to take an oath that they would not propound Cartesian ideas which caused offence. To the little circle around Spinoza, Descartes was seen as a source of inspiration, as a brave soul who refused to base his opinions on mere tradition, and affirmed that all we know is known by the "natural light" of reason. Descartes was an inspiration to Spinoza, but the latter had too keen an intellect to accept him uncritically.

This was an age of great discoveries. Science was beginning to stretch its wings, and the old Aristotelian world view was being replaced by the new scientific-mechanistic view of nature. Galileo himself had written that he believed that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics. Spinoza’s whole outlook was dominated by a passionate interest in nature and science. He conducted a correspondence with the English chemist Robert Boyle, discussed comets with Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, and comments on Descartes’ laws of motion and the theories of Huygens.

Holland was the freest country in Europe at this time. The Dutch bourgeoisie had succeeded in throwing off the yoke of Spanish domination by a revolutionary struggle in which it leaned for support on the lower middle class and semi-proletarian masses. In 1579, the provinces of the Protestant Netherlands came together to form the Union of Utrecht, out of which the Dutch Republic emerged. Article three of the Union proclaimed religious toleration as a basic principle. However, from the outset this was opposed by the powerful sect of "strict" or "precise" Calvinists, who wanted only one official Church in Holland—their own.

At the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19) they succeeded in getting Calvinism recognised as the official religion. But the liberal Jan de Wit, who was the leader of the Netherlands from 1653 to 1672, stood firm against religious intolerance. Spinoza did not stand aloof from the political struggle. He set aside work on his Ethics in order to publish a book in defence of the freedom of speech and thought, the Treatise on Theology and Politics, which appeared in 1670. This earned him the bitter enmity of the strict Calvinists, who were scandalised by his attempts to show that the Bible is not to be seen as containing philosophical or scientific truths.

In July 1670 the Synod declared the Treatise an "evil and blasphemous book." An anonymous pamphlet attacking de Wit described the book as "spawned in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil," and that it was "published with the knowledge of Mr. Jan de Wit." In 1672 a French army invaded Holland and de Wit was murdered by a mob in The Hague. For opportunist reasons, William of Orange sided with the Calvinists. Two years later the Treatise was banned. For the rest of his short life, Spinoza was forced to keep his head down. Tragically, his masterpiece, the Ethics, was never published in his lifetime, for fear of the reaction of the Church. It only appeared in 1677, the year the great man died of consumption.

Spinoza was one of those true geniuses who carried out a real revolution in philosophy. Taking as his starting point the philosophy of Descartes, he completely transformed it, and in so doing, laid the basis for a genuinely scientific approach to nature. "It is therefore worthy of note," wrote Hegel, "that thought must begin by placing itself at the standpoint of Spinozism; to be a follower of Spinoza is the essential commencement of all Philosophy." (History of Philosophy, Vol. 3, p. 257.) Not only Hegel, but Goethe, Schiller, Marx, and the young Schelling were much influenced by Spinoza. When Einstein was engaged in a philosophical dispute with Niels Bohr over the fundamental problems of quantum mechanics, he wrote that he would rather have "old Spinoza" as a referee instead of Bertrand Russell or Carnap.

Maybe that is why, with his customary arrogance, Bertrand Russell in his History of Western Philosophy writes that the whole of Spinoza’s "metaphysic" is "incompatible with modern logic and the scientific method. Facts have to be discovered by observation, not by reasoning; when we successfully infer the future, we do so by means of principles which are not logically necessary, but are suggested by empirical data. And the concept of substance, upon which Spinoza relies, is one which neither science nor philosophy can nowadays accept." (B. Russell, op. cit., p. 560.)

The whole point is that Spinoza, by not restricting himself to the narrow confines of empirical philosophy, was able to transcend the limits of the mechanistic science of the day. While Berkeley and Hume led philosophy into a blind alley (and also science, if it had paid any attention to them, which fortunately it did not), Spinoza brilliantly showed the way forward. In spite of the ridiculous pretensions of Russell and his fellow logical positivists, who—without the slightest basis—put themselves forward as the supreme guardians of an alleged "scientific method" arbitrarily defined by themselves, science proceeds in an entirely different way to that indicated in these lines.

In particular, the role of great hypotheses in pointing scientific research in the right direction has been fundamental. And, by definition, a hypothesis can only be based on a limited number of "facts," and must involve reasoning, and also courage and imagination. How much time and effort would have been saved if scientists had paid attention to Kant’s nebular theory of the origin of the solar system, for example? And how much time is now being wasted in the search for "cold, dark matter," which is based upon no "observed facts" whatever, and which is intended to support a cosmological hypothesis more fantastic than anything Spinoza ever thought of.

"It is to the highest credit of the philosophy of the time that it did not let itself be led astray by the restricted state of contemporary natural knowledge, and that—from Spinoza down to the great French materialists—it insisted on explaining the world from the world itself and left the justification in detail to the natural science of the future." (Engels, The Dialectics of Nature, p. 36.)

Spinoza, by the strength of reason, and with the very limited scientific results available to him, arrived at one of the greatest hypotheses of all time. Breaking with Descartes, with his notion of a body without a soul and a soul without a body, he advanced the idea that body and mind are two attributes of one and the same thing. The universe is not composed of mind and matter, as alleged by Descartes’ dualism. There is only a single Substance, which contains within itself all the attributes of thought and being. It is infinite and eternal, and possesses all the potential to give rise to the abundance of phenomena we see in the universe.

Spinoza gives this Substance the name of "God." But in reality, to make God equal to nature is to abolish God, a fact which was not lost on Spinoza’s enemies, when they accused him of atheism. In Spinoza’s universe, infinite and eternal, and therefore uncreated and unbounded by heaven or hell, there is no room for a separate deity, indeed, no room for anything whatsoever except Substance, which is just another way of saying nature.

Thus, in a strange way, the philosophy of Spinoza, despite its idealist appearance, is the real point of departure for materialism in the dialectical, that is, non-mechanical sense of the word. All that is necessary is to substitute the word "matter" for "God," and we get a perfectly consistent materialist position. As Marx wrote in a letter to Lassalle on May 31st 1858:

"Even in the case of philosophers who give systematic form to their work, Spinoza for instance, the true inner structure of the system is quite unlike the form in which it was consciously presented by him." (MECW, Vol. 40, p. 316.) The great admiration of Marx and Engels for Spinoza was revealed by Plekhanov, who recalls a conversation he had with Engels, then an old man, in 1889: "‘So do you think,’ I asked, ‘old Spinoza was right when he said that thought and extent are nothing but two attributes of one and the same substance?’ ‘Of course,’ Engels replied, ‘old Spinoza was quite right’." (Plekhanov, Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. 2, p. 339.)

The existence of the material universe is taken as an axiom. The model for Spinoza was geometry, which sets out with axioms—self-evident assertions which require no proof. Yet the same people who are prepared to accept on trust the axioms of Euclid (which, incidentally, so far from being self-evident truths, are open to serious objections) nevertheless display extreme reluctance to admit the reality of the material world, declaring this to be beyond our knowledge to assert. Yet this same material world is the starting-point of all our experience and knowledge. "God or a substance consisting of attributes each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists," proclaims Spinoza (Spinoza, The Ethics, p. 9). Moreover, matter can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed:

"Matter is the same everywhere, and its parts are not distinguished one from the other except in so far as we conceive matter to be affected in various ways, whence its parts are distinguished one from the other modally but not in reality. E.g., we can conceive water, in so far as it is water, to be divided and its parts separated one from the other: but not in so far as it is corporeal substance, for then it is neither separated nor divided. Again, water, in so far as it is water, can be made and destroyed, but in so far as it is substance it can neither be made or destroyed." (Ibid, p. 16.)

God thus has no existence separate and apart from the material world, which has not been created because it has always existed. He is "free"—to obey the laws of nature, and so on. In other words, "God" is only nature. This Pantheism of Spinoza is really a thinly-disguised materialism. Despite its peculiar form (probably an unsuccessful attempt to ward off accusations of atheism), this is head and shoulders above the mechanistic outlook of contemporary scientists. Instead of the mechanical conception of matter being moved by an external force, here we have matter which moves according to its own inherent laws, it is "its own cause."

Thought can have no existence apart from Substance (matter). It is an attribute of matter organised in a certain way, "consequently thinking substance and extended substance are one and the same substance, which is comprehended through this and now through that attribute." In other words, thought and matter are "one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways" (ibid., p. 42). This is a real breakthrough. In essence, we have here a correct assessment of the relation between thought and being; not, as in Descartes, a radical separation of the two, but their dialectical unity. Not thought opposed to matter, but matter that thinks. Here Spinoza comes close to an overtly materialist position: "The mind," he says, "has no knowledge of itself save in so far as it perceives the ideas of the modifications of the body" (ibid., p. 59). And again, "For the human body...is affected by external bodies in many ways and disposed to affect external bodies in many ways. But the human mind...must perceive all things which happen in the human body." (Ibid., p.53.)

This presentation was far superior to the crude conception of mechanical materialism which saw thought as a material substance secreted from the brain, as sweat from the sweat glands. Spinoza, following Descartes, says that thought differs from matter in that it has no extension. It is not a material thing, but the very function of the brain itself, its essential property. Thought is not merely an abstract contemplative activity, but the way in which thinking beings react to their environment at the conscious level. It is not possible to separate thought from all other human activities. Thought, as Spinoza understood, is one of the attributes of highly organised matter, nature that thinks, and not something opposed to nature:

"If this were so, it must seem most odd that consciousness and nature, thinking and being, the laws of thought and the laws of nature, should so closely correspond. But if we then ask what thought and consciousness are and whence they come, we find that they are products of the human brain and that man himself is a product of nature, who has developed in and along with his environment; whence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, which in the last analysis are also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature’s interconnections but correspond to them." (Engels, Anti-D¸hring, p. 44.)

Here thought and matter are different but not mechanically opposed, mutually exclusive opposites. Spinoza understood that matter ("Substance") contains within itself all that is necessary to give rise to thought. Given the right concatenation of factors, organic matter arises out of inorganic matter. And even the most primitive life-forms can evolve to produce thinking beings. There is not, as Descartes thought, an absolute dividing line separating organic from inorganic matter, or man from the animals. In all these ideas, Spinoza showed himself to be far in advance of his times.

Spinoza believed that mastery over nature and the improvement of man were the main purpose of the pursuit of knowledge. In the field of ethics and morality too, he defends very advanced ideas. He correctly understood that morality was relative:

"As for the terms good and bad, they also mean nothing positive in things considered in themselves, nor are they anything else than modes of thought, or notions, which we form from the comparison of things with each other. For one and the same thing can at the same time be good, bad, and indifferent. E.g., music is good to the melancholy, bad to those who mourn, and neither good nor bad to the deaf. Although this be so, these words must be retained by us." (Spinoza, Ethics, p. 141.)

He rejected the idea of free will, and instead advocated a thoroughly determinist position. There are no "free" actions, in the sense that all actions are caused by something, whether we are aware of it or not. Spinoza was the first one to give a dialectical appraisal of the relation between freedom and necessity, when he pointed out that real freedom consists in the understanding of necessity. True freedom does not consist in denying the existence of the objective laws of nature, but in striving to understand them, in order to gain mastery over them.

He opposed prejudice and superstition wherever he found them, and long before the French Enlightenment, decided to summon all prejudices to the "court of reason." For those who take refuge in the will of God, "the asylum of ignorance," he has nothing but contempt. In the following passage, he was undoubtedly speaking from painful personal experience:

"Thus again, when they see the human body they are amazed, and as they know not the cause of so much art, they conclude that it was made not by mechanical art, but divine or supernatural art, and constructed in such a manner that one part does not injure another. And hence it comes about that someone who wishes to seek out the true causes of miracles, and to understand the things of nature like a man of learning, and not stare at them in amazement like a fool, is widely deemed heretical and impious, and proclaimed such by those whom the mob adore as the interpreters of nature and the Gods." (Ibid., p. 34-5.)

The basic idea of Spinoza’s philosophy is monism—the idea that all things are one. All the myriad forms of existence, the shapes, colours, forms of movement, are only different expressions of the same Substance, which can assume an infinite variety of forms. These accidental, temporary phenomena he calls "modi" (singular, modus). They are the the forms which matter assumes, continually coming into being and disappearing, like the restless waves on a mighty ocean. But these transitory forms of being can have no separate existence, independent from Substance, unbounded and eternal, which, operating according to its own laws, must give rise to an unlimited number of particular, finite forms. These forms, in turn, are not free agents, but subject to natural laws which determine the existence of all things. Through the agency of reason, it is possible to understand these laws and thereby achieve freedom consciously to determine our actions and comprehend our true place in the universe.

This imposing philosophy is in complete accord with the discoveries of modern science. All the endless forms of organic and inorganic matter we see in the universe can be reduced to the same substance—molecules, atoms and sub-atomic particles. According to the latest theories, a small number of quarks are put together in different ways to make hundreds of hadrons, which combine to form the nuclei of a hundred or so chemical elements. Together with leptons, they then make up atoms, which then combine to make molecules, out of which everything else is built. The same material substance therefore underlies all the forms of being in the universe. Of course, this picture is much more complicated than the one painted by Spinoza, who had only the scantiest information to go on. A long period of scientific advance was necessary before his picture of the universe could be properly corroborated. But his hypothesis that everything comes from a common substance has been substantially vindicated.

The principle of monism can be interpreted either in a materialist or an idealist sense. Plato and Hegel were also monists, because they considered that the universe and everything in it was ultimately an expression of the "Absolute Idea." Marx and Engels were materialist monists. Spinoza’s case is peculiar. While formally he has to be considered an idealist, there is an element of ambiguity about his Substance which is certainly open to a materialist interpretation. This was quickly grasped by his contemporaries, Jews and Christians alike, who accused him of atheism. All kinds of heinous crimes and immoral ideas were attributed to him. For a long time after his death his name could hardly be mentioned in polite society. The German writer Lessing said that, in his day, a century later, people treated Spinoza "like a dead dog."

Despite all the calumnies, Spinoza’s philosophy stands as a monument to the great and noble spirit that conceived it. His philosophy, which came very close to materialism, inevitably led him to draw the most advanced social conclusions, in contrast to the reactionary misanthropy of Hume and Berkeley. This comes across clearly in the pages of his masterpiece, Ethics:

"Man is a God to man. Yet it rarely happens that men live under the guidance of reason, but among them things are in such a state that they are usually envious of or a nuisance to each other. But nevertheless they are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that to many the definition of man as a social animal has been very attractive; and in truth things are so ordered that from the common society of men far more conveniences arise than the contrary. Let satirists therefore laugh to their hearts’ content at human affairs, let theologians revile them, and let the melancholy praise as much as they can the rude and uncultivated life: let them despise men and admire the brutes—despite all this, men will find by experience that they can procure with mutual aid far more easily what they need, and avoid far more easily the perils which beset them on all sides, by united forces: to say nothing of how much better it is, and more worthy of our knowledge, to regard the deeds of men rather than those of the brutes" (Ibid. p, 161-2.)

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