The Genius of Spinoza

A friend visited the British philosopher Stuart Hampshire just before he died last year. Hampshire was able to talk only with difficulty but managed to say, “Spinoza was right. In the end it is all biology.” The friend, as he was leaving, muttered politely, “See you soon.” Hampshire replied, “I don’t think so.” He died the next day.

Hampshire regarded being over-concerned with the publication of one’s own work vulgar; yet, approaching his ninetieth birthday with untreatable cancer, he knew his time was running out, and he became very concerned with the publication of his last writings on Spinoza. He had written a celebrated book on Spinoza in 1951. He rightly sensed that his last work on Spinoza was not just another academic treatise but, in a way, his final testament, a personal philosophical legacy, refracted through the lenses of Spinoza. Hampshire became convinced that after more than fifty years of grappling with Spinoza’s thought, he had finally gotten it right. Moreover, he also became convinced that Spinoza had gotten it right in his view of nature and of human nature.

Hampshire wanted his last work on Spinoza to come out as a separate book, unencumbered by anything he had thought or written about Spinoza in the past. But then the manuscript he had written in the last two years of his life turned out to be too short to be published as a freestanding book. Friends suggested that he reissue his 1951 book on Spinoza, long out of print, with the new treatise as an introduction. Now under one cover we have nearly everything Hampshire has written on Spinoza: the book of 1951, which had undergone several revisions over the years, along with an essay that he wrote as an introduction to its 1987 edition, another powerful article he had published in 1962 about Spinoza’s idea of freedom, and his last essay, “Spinoza and Spinozism”which gives the new book its title and serves as its introduction.

The book of 1951, simply entitled Spinoza: An Introduction to His Philosophical Thought, was the opening book in a Penguin series intended to draw modern analytical philosophers to the philosophers of the past. Hampshire’s book became an instant success; 45,000 copies were sold in the first three months. It is hard to recall now how unusual it was for a book about Spinoza to have been written by an analytical philosopher in the early 1950s. The climate among analytical philosophers was hostile to metaphysical speculation, which Spinoza was taken to epitomize. He was a philosopher who set out to find what the world was like by sheer reasoning, with no recourse to observation or experiment.

Analytical philosopher” is a label that, by now, has become somewhat outdated. But when Hampshire wrote his book the term meant both a doctrine and a method, the idea being that philosophical problems should be solved, if not dissolved, by logical analy- sis of language. For the group of analytical philosophers …

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