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.
Should Spinoza be understood as the last medievalist or as a towering early modernist? Wolfson’s answer is that he was both. For Hampshire, Spinoza is to be understood neither as Baruch nor as Benedictus but rather as an ultramodern philosopher whose philosophy fits amazingly with the findings of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and molecular biology: a thinker who combines the intellectual qualities of the brain researcher Antonio Damasio and of Stuart Hampshire himself.
Spinoza of course knew nothing about modern biology. The most advanced biology of his time was William Harvey’s account of human blood circulation. While he lacked the information that is provided by modern science, however, he had a great deal of insight into the workings of the body and nature that comes from speculation and can, to a reasonable extent, be applied to modern science. The philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser defined a genius as a person with “insight information.” Hampshire believed that Spinoza was a genius in this sense:
It often seems that Spinoza had guessed, long ahead of time, that future discoveries in the physiology of the brain and nervous system would gradually reveal the amazing complexities involved: of systems within systems, of overlapping systems, of some functions in the brain localized, of some not localized, devices for repair and protection of damaged systems, and so on.
Descartes compared knowledge to a tree: its roots are metaphysics, its trunk is mathematical physics, and its branches are the sciences. Most important among the branches are medicine and ethics, whose fruits tell us how we should lead our lives. Metaphysics, in contrast, tells us about the general constitution of the world. Perhaps the hardest metaphysical question is how we can sort out the relation between the physical and the mental, between the mind and the body, or—to put it more fashionably but more misleadingly—between the mind and the brain.
For many years Hampshire believed that, in spite of their marked metaphysical differences, Descartes and Spinoza shared the same picture of the tree of knowledge. But he later came to believe that for Spinoza, metaphysical roots are more suitable for supporting a trunk of biology than one of physics. Hampshire believed that there is a distinct biological way of thinking, which is different from both the mathematical and the physical ways of thinking; furthermore, he believed that Spinoza had a biological cast of mind in contrast to Descartes, whose thinking was imbued with physics.
In Hampshire’s view, Spinoza believed nature to be composed of individual organisms pursuing their essential natures in a series of activities:
It is probable that the human body served for Spinoza as the model for physical systems in general, even though he did not have access to the physiology and the anatomy which would conduct him from protein to the cell to the limb to the whole person. He had an extraordinary understanding of the dynamic processes, the conflicts and the delicate balances, which are to be found in all living systems. As he studied the mechanisms of the human eye, he could also have turned his understanding to the ecosystem of a primeval forest and to the balance between the conflicting energies of myriads of plants and animals, or to any herd or swarm of living creatures.
Lord Rutherford famously said that all of science is either physics or stamp collecting. He presumably meant to imply that physics gives a systematic account of nature and everything else is like stamp collecting in that it consists of the eclectic and unsystematic lumping together of scattered observations. This crudely captures a sentiment that Hampshire first developed when he was teaching at Prince-ton, under the influence of his friend-ship with Robert Oppenheimer, and later, in the years he was the warden of Wadham College in Oxford, under the influence of his colleague the mathematical physicist Roger Penrose. But his last testament was written with biology rather than physics in mind—perhaps owing to his meetings with Antonio Damasio, whose influence he acknowledges in his final book.
For Galileo and Descartes, the language required for expressing the laws of motion was mathematics. “For Spinoza,” Hampshire wrote, “this language is incomplete, and at least one other language is needed alongside it, a language that describes the activities of individuals….” The “biological turn” in Hampshire’s Spinoza is a turn toward the central importance of the individual person. Biology provides the model for understanding the nature of the individual organism—and it is the notion of the individual, Hampshire contends, that is central to Spinoza’s ethics and politics. The biological approach is thus crucial for a tree of knowledge whose branches, and fruits, are medicine and political ethics.
Like the ancient philosophers, Spinoza saw philosophy as a way of life. Metaphysics and science, in this view, are not viewed as autonomous subjects but as subjects that both provide useful knowledge that leads to salvation. And for Spinoza, Hampshire writes, salvation, in essence, is peace of mind, not peace in heaven; a troubled mind is haunted by fear, especially fear of death. Philosophy can liberate the mind from fear by dispelling man’s deep-seated illusions about the world, illusions that are nourished by the imagination. In Spinoza’s view, as Hampshire interprets it, the historical religions are glaring expressions of such illusions: religion encourages us to substitute the uncritical power of imagination for the critical power of reason.
Metaphysics, then, provides us with the most general and abstract concepts that we need in order to account for reality—concepts such as cause, individual, activity, action, power, infin-ity, substance, and more. The general account of reality that we construct with the help of these concepts is compatible with science and with new scientific discoveries. The greatness of Spinoza, according to Hampshire, consists in his providing specific abstract metaphysical concepts that can best accommodate modern biology, although the actual content of modern biology was of course wholly unknown to him.
Essential to Spinoza’s biological view of reality is the activity of the individual. The basic metaphysical concept that Spinoza provided to accommodate his biological view is his notion of conatus, the drive to self-maintenance: “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to preserve its being.” The most striking examples of the drive for self-preservation can be found in living organisms. “As a naturalist,” Hampshire explains, Spinoza
would notice everywhere patterns of self-assertion and of self-protection, as parasitical fleas and microbes struggle to survive in the relentless competition between kinds.
Spinoza imputes this drive to everything, inanimate as well as animate. Much as a whale does, a wave strives to maintain its integrity in the ocean, in face of disintegrating external forces. The internal organization of the individual is geared to its self- preservation; the pressure to destroy the integrity of a person comes always from the outside. Destruction for Spinoza always comes from outside forces.
One trouble with this account is that in modern biology, at least in one widely accepted version of it, the principal unit of self-preservation is the gene and not the individual organism, or, for that matter, the spe-cies. It is the self-preservation of “the selfish gene” that is said to explain why a bird would sacrifice and des-troy itself by warning its flock against an approaching hawk. In such a case, as some biologists have argued, it is not the individual bird striving to persist but the genes. Hampshire is aware that Spinoza’s appeal to the individual drive for self-maintenance might be amended in light of mod-ern biology. Still, the overlap between what genes do and what organisms do is sufficient to justify defining the “individual organism” as that which strives for self-preservation, especially, as Hampshire argued, when we take account of conscious motivation in higher beings. Hampshire summarized his view eloquently in Spinoza and Spinozism:
Descartes’ metaphysics demanded that the activities of a person’s body should be those of a particularly complex machine. The model is unhelpful, only because the principles of coherence of parts in a human body are so unlike the principles of coherence in a machine, and human flesh is so dissimilar in its powers or susceptibilities to metals. Spinoza looked to individual natures for explanations of behaviour, rather than to general laws and mechanical models. Individual natures were composed of the dispositions and capacities of individuals, formed by their particular history and superimposed on species-wide dispositions and capacities.
First, self-consciousness, and, secondly, power of intellect distinguish human beings from other species of animals. One principal function of the brain is to keep the rest of the body under constant surveillance and to initiate protective action when some actual or impending harm is signalled to it. It is an organ that serves the conatus, and presumably developed in this role throughout evolution. Neurologists now investigate in detail the vast and complex pre-conscious and unconscious mechanisms involved in this protective service. The brain also registers pain and pleasure and desire, originally as part of this monitoring function, and on this basis is constructed the whole of a person’s emotional life and hence his behaviour.
The passage suggests the change in Hampshire’s own thought. In the introduction he wrote to the 1987 edition of his early book he advocates what then seemed to him a balanced view of Spinoza:
There have been many Spinozas over the years since his death: a Parmenidean Spinoza, a Cartesian Spinoza, a materialist-atheist-determinist Spinoza, a mystical pantheist Spinoza. There is some foundation in the texts for each of these over-simplifications. But the problem is to keep all the diverse strands in his thought simultaneously in full view: it is a problem of balance.
It is clear, however, that Hampshire finally chose to tip the balance in favor of the “biologist” Spinoza.
Spinoza believed strongly that there is by necessity only one state of events in the world—only one reality. However, we human beings can grasp it from two different aspects—each explained in different ways, the physical and psychological. Spinoza maintained that these two types of explanation are entirely separate categories and there is no coherent way of crossing from one kind of explanation to the other. True, we say things like “the girl blushed” (a physical description) because an embarrassing thought crossed her mind (a mental description). But for Spinoza this is a bogus explanation. A legitimate physical explanation should go roughly like this: “Extra adrenalin activated her sympathetic nervous system so as to widen her blood vessels.” A legitimate, parallel psychological explanation might be: “The thought that she behaved awkwardly with the person she had a crush on made her feel flushed.”
These two explanations account for one and the same reality, but they do so from two different aspects. For Spinoza, attempts to cross the conceptual barrier between the two leads to confusion because thought, for him, is not defined by physical energy and therefore it cannot produce a physical effect: if a thought could bring about a blush then something devoid of physical energy would have produced energy—the rush of blood into the girl’s veins—and the law of conservation of energy would have been violated. It is wrong, according to Spinoza’s view, to see the brain as secreting thoughts in the same way the kidneys secrete urine. Explaining a blush by referring to an embarrassing thought is thus resorting to magic, not to biology. However, what is true and important is that the event consisting of an embarrassing thought in the woman’s mind has a parallel physical description as an event in her brain. These are not two events, one in the mind and one in the brain; there is only one chain of events which is described from two different vantage points.
In his last work on Spinoza, Hampshire seems to have had second thoughts regarding the importance of the conceptual barrier between the two aspects. “It no longer seems so important to distinguish exactly and consistently between the powers of a person as embodied in his brain and the powers of a person as a thinking being,” he writes. But he still thought the distinction useful. Indeed it could be argued that Spinoza’s insistence on making the categorical difference between the two kinds of explanations firm is exactly what is needed in current discussions on the mind–brain relation—discussions that are often confused nowadays by not heeding Spinoza’s scruples.
In any case, Hampshire is entirely clear in claiming that the two aspects should be viewed as equal in importance. To say that one aspect is more basic than the other is as silly as to say that it is more basic for a curve to be described as concave than to be described as convex. “Concave” and “convex” are two aspects of the same shape, as with the inside and outside of a bowl; neither is more basic but some things are better explained by referring to a convex surface and other things are better explained by reference to a concave surface. Some human actions are most usefully described by reference to neuronal behavior; others by expression of thoughts in language. Depending on the subject in question, one aspect may be more revealing than the other. Most important, human freedom is better explained by reference to the qualities of the human mind than to those of the human body.
The ability to grasp the Janus-faced nature of things does not end with grasping reality through the two aspects of the physical and the mental. It includes nature itself. Spinoza maintains that the inability of religion to grasp the dual aspects of nature is responsible for its grand illusion. The grand illusion of religion consists of the idea that there are two realities, the reality of God and the reality of nature—the reality of the creator is seen as separate from the reality of the nature he creates. According to Spinoza, however, there is only one reality; we may choose to call this reality either God or nature. Nature for Spinoza can in turn be understood as having two aspects: self-creating nature on the one hand and nature as a created system on the other.
Both Descartes and Leibniz, Spinoza’s two great metaphysical competitors, shared, according to Hampshire, in the grand illusion of religion. The dual aspect of the one nature eluded them, and they deluded themselves by arguing for a worldview capable of accommodating the conception of a transcendent creator—the God of Judaism and Christianity—within a scientific perspective. Hampshire believes that if Spinoza had become aware of the theory of evolution, or of the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, he would have identified in these theories what he saw as the self-creative aspect of nature. “He could not have known any of the detail of this story [the story of Evolution and the Big Bang] although he seems to have anticipated the outline.”
I suspect that for Hampshire dual perspectives were not only a matter of a metaphysical worldview but of personal proclivity. During World War II he was assigned to the intelligence service in Bletchley Park where the Enigma code was cracked to reveal the secrets of the Nazi command. He worked within the John le Carré world of MI6 and other secret organizations. In both cases Hampshire led a secretive life and enjoyed its intrigue. He was, it was said, the first person to suspect Kim Philby, his boss at the time, of being a Soviet master spy. Yet while I was aware of Hampshire’s secret past and knew him as a philosophy teacher and warden of Walham College at Oxford, I never thought that he led a double life. He genuinely believed that he led a single, seamless life—a life that could be viewed from two different aspects, one from “within” and one from “the outside.” I remember Hampshire saying, half jokingly but only half, that he found the Spanish and Portuguese Marrano Jews quite congenial: these were Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution by the Inquisition, but who continued to practice Judaism in secret. Spinoza’s family in- cluded such Jews.
Ethics and politics, according to Spinoza, are ways of thinking that should be understood as helping human beings strive for self-preservation. This means that the vocabulary we use for ethics should be the same as that we use for describing nature. Human beings are part of nature, not a separate kingdom within the kingdom of nature. According to Hampshire, Spinoza believed that “the best indication that an activity is as it ought to be is that the agent [i.e., the person who acts] enjoys it, feeling it to be natural to him, and that it is an unimpeded expression of his dispositions.” Pleasure is a sense of vitality, a well-being that comes with the enhanced sense of self-preservation. “Unpleasure,” to use Hampshire’s word, is seen as loss of vitality, a decreased sense of self-preservation. Pleasure and unpleasure are the primary colors of our emotional life; they are affected and given texture by our conscious reflections about the particular experiences we have.
The complexity of the human brain confers on us the power of reflection, in virtue of which we can enjoy something quite unique: the delight in grasping objective reality by pursuing science and philosophy. Our intellectual life, as well as our enlightened emotional life, is integral to what is meant by leading a distinct and fully vital human existence. Here is Spinoza:
It is the part of the wise man, I say, to refresh and restore himself in moderation with pleasant food and drink, with scents, with the beauty of green plants, with decoration, music, sports, the theater, and other things of this kind, which anyone can use without injury to another. For the human body is composed of a great many parts of different natures, which constantly require new and varied nourishment, so that the whole body may be equally capable of all the things which can follow from his nature, and hence, so that the mind also may be equally capable of understanding many things at once.
This is a credo worthy of a wise man. There is no better expression of what Hampshire, a truly wise man, believed in and tried to live by. As he concluded, “The uses of imagination are also paths to freedom, alongside the uses of reason.”
October 20, 2005