Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Books Unblogged: Spinoza Edition

Here are some books I enjoyed reading in recent months (which in a parallel blogging universe I discuss in greater detail.)

1. A Spinoza Reader (edited and translated by Edwin Curley).

I wanted to read Spinoza’s Ethics; this volume also contains some excerpts from other writings and correspondence. Among philosophers, Spinoza is comparatively easy to read. While his idea to write the Ethics in a Euclidean format was quixotic, it makes the discussion straightforward to follow and subsequently reference.

I like Spinoza’s metaphysics very much, so I’m inclined to say he was “way ahead of his time.” (Good SEP articles on Spinoza here and here). In any case, I think he’s right that the most viable view of God is as a maximal conception of Nature. We live in a finite locale within God’s infinite expanse. On the other hand, Spinoza failed to find an explanation for contingency and so endorsed necessitarianism (but see also here): ignorance is his explanation for our intuition of contingency (I’d like to travel in time and see what he would have made of quantum mechanics and the idea of objective indeterminism). I think his views about mind (thought and extension are two coequal aspects of the same reality) still make plenty of sense in today’s philosophical landscape. The latter parts of the Ethics get a little long-winded and pedantic, but include a variety of practical tidbits of wisdom about human psychology and how to live one’s life that will reward a re-reading.

It’s a wonderful world we live in where you can find multiple well-written popular books about Spinoza, too. I enjoyed

2. The Courtier and the Heretic, by Matthew Stewart.

This is a great book about Leibniz (the courtier) and Spinoza (the heretic), their lives and their philosophy (NY Times review here). Stewart is a talented writer who trained as a philosopher and spent time as a management consultant prior to becoming an author (here’s an interview with him). Spinoza is the hero of the book, whose philosophy and personal life were conducted with a high degree of integrity. Liebniz is the less admirable but more fascinating figure: a whirling dervish of opinions and inquiry (on philosophy, theology, politics, law, drainage devices for mines, etc.) who at all times is looking to advance his career and curry favor with the right elites. Stewart’s main thesis (which he surely overstates a bit) is that Leibniz’ philosophy was profoundly influenced by that of Spinoza (whom he met once, not long before the latter’s death). Stewart’s Leibniz knows (but conceals) that Spinoza has superior metaphysical arguments, and takes as his challenge the creation of a worldview which is equally up-to-date, but still comports with religious orthodoxy.

I also liked

3. Betraying Spinoza, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

This is mediation upon Spinoza’s life and background, and its influence in setting the course of his philosophy. Goldstein also sees Spinoza as a heroic and admirable figure, and a kindred spirit to boot. The book discusses the history of the (Spanish/Portuguese) Jewish community in 17th century Amsterdam; she traces the roots of the kind of religious and philosophical thought which a member of that community received as inheritance, and finds strands which emerge in Spinoza’s work. This is a “betrayal” of Spinoza, since he viewed his philosophy as the product of working out a pure “view from nowhere,” uninfluenced by the community which excommunicated him. Much of this book is speculative, and it’s a distinctly personal reflection, but it is very interesting and informative. Most of Goldstein’s books are novels (and she has a new one which looks interesting), but so far I’ve only read her non-fiction (my post on her Gödel book is here; Harold Bloom’s review of this book is here).

4. Saving God: Religion after Idolatry, by Mark Johnston

I’m cheating here, because this is not a book about Spinoza (although he is discussed a bit), however the author constructs an interesting argument which arrives at a Spinoza-like destination. Johnston is a philosopher at Princeton; this work, however, is not a philosophy book per se, but an extended essay (with some philosophical and theological elements). In it, Johnston’s goal is to criticize traditional religions on their own terms and see where this leads him (the first sections of this NDPR review summarize the book very well). He assumes there is a God (a “highest one”) worthy of our fealty and the source of a path toward some kind of salvation. He then wants to strip away everything from traditional religious practice which can be criticized as arbitrary, idolatrous, or inappropriately focused on ego or worldly interests. He finds this eliminates supernatural entities and interventions, idiosyncratic historical trappings, the afterlife, and on and on. What’s left is a panentheistic vision of reality. This is a provocative and interesting book.

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