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Spinoza, Benedict de (1632–77)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA070-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 22, 2017, from

Article Summary

A Dutch philosopher of Jewish origin, Spinoza was born Baruch de Spinoza in Amsterdam. Initially given a traditional Talmudic education, he was encouraged by some of his teachers to study secular subjects as well, including Latin and modern philosophy. Perhaps as a result of this study, he abandoned Jewish practices and beliefs and, after receiving stern warnings, he was excommunicated from the synagogue in 1656. Alone and without means of support, he Latinized his name and took up the trade of lens grinder with the intention of devoting his life to philosophy. He remained in Amsterdam until 1660, lived for the next decade in nearby villages, and in The Hague from 1670 until his death from consumption in 1677. During these years he worked continuously on his philosophy and discussed it with a small circle of friends and correspondents. His masterpiece, Ethica Ordine Geometrico Demonstrata (Ethics Demonstrated in a Geometrical Manner), was completed in 1675; but because of its radical doctrines, it was only published after his death.

The full scope of Spinoza’s Ethics is not indicated by its title. It begins with a highly abstract account of the nature of substance, which is identified with God, and culminates in an analysis of human beings, their nature and place in the universe, and the conditions of their true happiness. Written in a geometrical form modelled after Euclid, each of its five parts contains a set of definitions, axioms and propositions which are followed by their demonstrations and frequently by explanatory scholia.

The defining feature of Spinoza’s thought is its uncompromising rationalism. Like other philosophers of the time, Spinoza is a rationalist in at least three distinct senses: metaphysical, epistemological and ethical. That is to say, he maintains that the universe embodies a necessary rational order; that, in principle, this order is knowable by the human mind; and that the true good for human beings consists in the knowledge of this order and a life governed by this knowledge. What is distinctive of Spinoza’s brand of rationalism, however, is that it allows no place for an inscrutable creator-God distinct from his creation, who acts according to hidden purposes. Instead, Spinoza boldly identifies God with nature, albeit with nature regarded as this necessary rational order rather than as the sum-total of particular things.

In its identification of God with nature, Spinoza’s philosophy is also thoroughly naturalistic and deterministic. Since nature (as infinite and eternal) is all-inclusive and all-powerful, it follows that nothing can be or even be conceived apart from it: this means that everything, including human actions and emotions, must be explicable in terms of nature’s universal and necessary laws. Moreover, given this identification, it also follows that knowledge of the order of nature specified through these laws is equivalent to the knowledge of God. Thus, in sharp opposition to the entire Judaeo-Christian tradition, Spinoza claims that the human mind is capable of adequate knowledge of God.

The attainment of such knowledge is, however, dependent on the use of the correct method. In agreement with Descartes and Thomas Hobbes (the two modern philosophers who exerted the greatest influence on his thought) and thoroughly in the spirit of the scientific revolution, Spinoza held that the key to this method lies in mathematics. This conviction is obviously reflected in the geometrical form of the Ethics; but it actually runs much deeper, determining what for Spinoza counts as genuine knowledge as opposed to spurious belief. More precisely, it means that an adequate understanding of anything consists in seeing it as the logical consequence of its cause, just as the properties of a geometrical figure are understood by seeing them as the logical consequence of its definition. This, in turn, leads directly to the complete rejection of final causes, that is, the idea that things in nature (or nature as a whole) serve or have an end, and that understanding them involves understanding their end. Not only did Spinoza reject final causes as unscientific, a view which he shared with most proponents of the new science, he also regarded it as the source of superstition and a major obstacle to the attainment of genuine knowledge.

The same spirit underlies Spinoza’s practical philosophy, which is marked by his clinical, dispassionate analysis of human nature and behaviour. In contrast to traditional moralists (both religious and secular), he rejects any appeal to a set of absolute values that are independent of human desire. Since the basic desire of every being is self-preservation, virtue is identified with the capacity to preserve one’s being, the good with what is truly useful in this regard and the bad with what is truly harmful. In the case of human beings, however, what is truly useful is knowledge; so virtue consists essentially in knowledge. This is because knowledge is both the major weapon against the passions (which are the chief sources of human misery) and, in so far as it is directed to God or the necessary order of nature, the source of the highest satisfaction.

Apart from the Ethics, Spinoza is best known for his contributions to the development of an historical approach to the Bible and to liberal political theory. The former is contained in the Tractatus Theologico-politicus (Theological-Political Treatise), which he published anonymously in 1670 as a plea for religious toleration and freedom of thought. The latter is contained both in that work and in the unfinished Tractatus Politicus (Political Treatise) of 1677, in which Spinoza attempts to extend his scientific approach to questions in political philosophy.

Citing this article:
Allison, Henry E.. Spinoza, Benedict de (1632–77), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA070-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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