Clerestory

The Accidental Spinozist

November 19, 2021

A few years ago I flew from California back to London. Upon landing, whilst still on the plane, I opened my bag to find an unfamiliar book.

The book was a Penguin Classics edition of Edwin Curley’s translation of Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics (1678). I had been looking at books in my parents’ house over Christmas, so I must have grabbed it by accident, though I had no recollection of having handled it at home. The book may even have been mine, from a high school philosophy class. Or it may have been one of my siblings’, since I tended to write my name in mine.

The slim volume, only 186 pages, sat on my shelf for many months. At some point I picked it up. The first part of the book is titled “On God.” It’s perplexing stuff, statements structured like a series of geometric proofs, with definitions and axioms. Here’s the first line:

D1: By cause of itself I understand that whose essence involves existence, or that whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing.

What?

Spinoza goes on to define God as “absolutely infinite,” and uses “q.e.d.” (quod erat demonstrandum, “That which was to be demonstrated”) in an apparently unironic way:

Therefore an absolutely infinite Being—i.e. (by D6), God—necessarily exists, q.e.d.

This of course reminded me of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

“The argument goes something like this: ‘I refuse to prove that I exist,’ says God, ‘for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.‘”
“‘But,’ says Man, ‘The Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED.’ ”
“‘Oh dear,’ says God, ‘I hadn’t thought of that,’ and promptly vanished in a puff of logic.”

But it also reminded me of St Anselm’s proof for the existence of God, which I’d learned about in my Catholic high school, and indeed, Spinoza’s too apparently falls under this category, called an ontological argument. I had never found such a proof persuasive, or at any rate I had been unable to grasp it. It always seemed to me like a language game.

I put down the book.

A few months ago I listened to a great Spinoza episode of the “What’s Left of Philosophy” podcast. The odd coincidence that had led to my possession of the book, along with the conscience of having left it unfinished, led me to try it again.

They focused on part four of the Ethics, the irresistibly titled “Of Human Bondage, or of the Powers of the Affects.”

I still have not finished the book, but already a few sentences from that section have had a profound effect on my thinking.

This was unexpected. Spinoza is one of the great rationalist thinkers, whom Wikipedia describes as regarding “reason as the chief source and test of knowledge.” Traditionally, rationalism opposes itself to empiricism, i.e., actually having any experience. For rationalists in general, “the criterion of truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive.” For some rationalists, “empirical proof and physical evidence [are] regarded as unnecessary to ascertain certain truths.”

I was put off by the opening of the Ethics because of precisely this rationalism. It seems to me easy to come up with an internally consistent system. The danger of such dreamed-up systems is that you can mistake the internal consistency for universal truth, or context-independence.

I care a lot about experience, about empirical testing, and about context.

I’m also a big fan of Zhuangzi, one of the great anti-rationalists.

I know, I know, anti-rationalism doesn’t sound great.1 But given at least the strong definition of rationalism above — which amounts to saying that experience is unimportant — I must oppose that position. Rationalism also does not seem to to me to sufficiently question or explain how reason (which is no easy matter for humans) might have arisen in the first place.

I continue this with a discussion of perfection tomorrow.


  1. It also has multiple meanings, and can sometimes be about faith rather than experience.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.