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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 identified as logical positivists—among them were the Viennese philosophers Rudolf Carnap and Moritz Schlick—this meant the reduction of all problems to questions of formal logic or empirical observation. If a proposition could not be formulated in the language of logic or the language of science then it could not be shown to be true or false. For the analytical philosophers of the ordinary-language persuasion, such as John Austin, “language” meant natural languages like English or Hebrew, and statements in such languages could be analyzed for their logical coherence and contradictions. For both groups, metaphysical statements were inherently suspect. Hampshire himself was one of a group of six Oxford philosophers who, in 1936, used to meet regularly in the rooms of Isaiah Ber-lin and John Austin at All Souls College, and who were credited with helping to launch analytical philosophy at Oxford.

Analytical philosophers perceive philosophy as not dependent on the history of thought, somewhat like the way abstract painters treat the figurative art of their predecessors. This is certainly an apt perception as far as the logical positivists of all tendencies are concerned. My own philosophy teacher, Yehoshua Bar-Hillel, a close associate of Rudolf Carnap, told me that there is no point in reading Spinoza. “Just look at the opening words of his Ethics,” he would say, referring to Spinoza’s statement that something was the “cause of itself.” “Well, you don’t need to read any further: nothing can logically be the cause of itself, just as nothing can logically be bigger than itself.” My teacher would have sued Spinoza for semantic malpractice had he had the chance.

This attitude was never entirely shared by the analytical philosophers in Britain. Indeed A.J. Ayer, the leading spokesman for logical positivism in Britain, wrote an editorial preface to Hampshire’s 1951 book, halfheartedly supporting his intellectual effort to elucidate Spinoza’s thought. In the final chapter of that book, Hampshire countered the arguments of “an anti-metaphysical critic”; he probably had Ayer in mind.

As it happened Hampshire addressed Bar-Hillel’s specific worry with regard to Spinoza’s use of the term “cause.” Among other senses, “cause,” he observed, can mean “because” in the sense of providing an explanation. When Spinoza says that A causes B, he means that B follows logically from A. So when he talks about something being the “cause of itself” he does not refer to a physical cause but rather to something whose existence is self-explanatory. Only nature as a whole, according to Spinoza, is the cause of itself, meaning that nature should be explainable by what actually happens in nature and that no appeal to a transcendent reality, or separate God, is necessary for explaining its existence.

But this was just the kind of metaphysical argument that logical positivists such as Bar-Hillel could not accept. In his 1951 book, however, Hampshire had a more general reaction to the anti-metaphysical critics:

Perhaps, in the last resort, no one will fully understand and enjoy Spinoza who has never to some degree shared the metaphysical temper, which is the desire to have a unitary view of the world andof man’s place within it. From this point of view the Ethics has no equal in modern European literature.

Some fifty years later, in his last book, he went further. He came to the conclusion that Spinoza’s speculations, even when couched in “absurdly crabbed and inelegant Latin,” were much more consistent with modern biology than the science-worshiping logical positivists ever were. While making much of the need for observation in science, the logical positivists had, he believed, no idea what observations actually consist of. They viewed observation simply as taking in what is there before one’s eyes. According to Hampshire, Spinoza did not count on mere a priori speculation. He attentively examined what is involved in human observations, only to realize that there is more to seeing than meets the eyes; perception, he concluded, is a complex and constantly changing activity, very much like thinking.

It was, Hampshire thought, Spinoza’s involvement with optics as a lens grinder that made him acutely aware of the effect that a change in point of view has on perception. He was thus saved from falling into the trap of viewing perception simply as a matter of passive observation. Indeed, for Hampshire what is most telling about Spinoza’s life and work is his profession—grinding lenses—more than his much-dramatized expulsion, in 1656 at the age of twenty-four, from the Jewish community for his heretical religious beliefs.


Spinoza scholarship has advanced a great deal since Hampshire published his book in the early 1950s. Analytically trained philosophers1 who took their cues from Hampshire produced excellent work on Spinoza and did much to dispel the logical positivists’ view of him as a metaphysician who muddied the water in order to declare it deep. In addition, Jonathan Israel’s recent Radical Enlightenment2 urges us to recognize Spinoza as a prime mover in shaping the European Enlightenment, arguing that his skepticism about divine authority radicalized a generation of intellectuals in the last years of the seventeenth century.

What concerned Hampshire to the end of his life was not so much his concern with how analytical philosophers would or should view Spinoza. It was, rather, a view expressed by the great historian of Jewish thought Harry Wolfson. Hampshire writes:

He remarked to his class at Harvard that my book was a sound “traditional” interpretation of Spinoza. This comment, widely reported, caused amusement at the time, but the implied criticism rankled in my mind for fifty years.

Hampshire needed to prove Wolfson wrong and to set the record straight, namely, that his Spinoza was not the traditional Spinoza as understood by Wolfson—a rationalist who held that men could know the mind of God by studying the laws of nature—but a radically different Spinoza, one who denied God’s transcendence, by identifying the mind of God with the laws of nature and concealing his denial of God’s transcendence in deliberately obscure language. Hampshire holds that

Spinoza never intended to communicate his real meaning, or the more significant part of his philosophy, to his contemporaries, except to a few close friends…. Spinoza believed that his contemporaries could not even try to understand his thought, because its conclusions were evidently incompatible with their deepest religious loyalties and moral prejudices. Being fully understood would cause a horrible scandal and it would destroy all tranquility in his life. In fact, he could not afford being understood.

By the time Spinoza wrote his Ethics, the atmosphere in Holland had turned intolerant and ugly because of the rivalry between the Calvinists (who believed in predestination) and the Arminians (who believed grace could be achieved). Professors at the University of Leiden, for example, were forbidden to mention the name of Descartes, whose project to fit science into a Catholic frame called into question traditional religion. Spinoza was acutely aware of the danger. No obscurity of Latin could save his neck: he had to refrain from publishing his Ethics.

In his original presentation, Hampshire chose to stick with Spinoza’s arcane vocabulary and with the order in which Spinoza presented his arguments. He subsequently came to believe that this choice was responsible for the wrong impression his book made on Wolfson and that he should write, in effect, his last testament in his own prose, using a more or less modern idiom.

Wolfson posed a dilemma for Spinoza scholarship. Should Spinoza be taken as Baruch or as Benedictus? Baruch is Spinoza’s first name in Hebrew. Interpreting Spinoza as Baruch amounts to seeing him as the last of the medievalists, as one who was still grappling with the ideas of Maimonides about the relation between the abstract God of Aristotle and the personal God of Abraham. Benedictus is Spinoza’s Latin name (which, like the Hebrew Baruch, literally means “blessed”). Taking Spinoza as Benedictus, for Wolfson, amounts to seeing him as one of the originators of modern philosophy, alongside Descartes and Leibniz.

  1. 1

    Including Jonathan Bennett, Edwin Curley, Margaret Wilson, Alan Donagan, and Michael Della Rocca.

  2. 2

    Oxford University Press, 2002.

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