Love Naturally


Thank you everyone who came to my Coffeehouse discussion on Spinoza last Monday at Rosslyn Hill Chapel. I was really challenged by the questions, and impressed by the engagement with the ideas of a sometimes difficult philosopher who lived over three hundred years ago.

Something I always try to do is to persuade people that, despite appearances to the contrary, Spinoza was not a simple pantheist, someone who reduces God with the totality of Natural entities, or the universe conceived materially. I quoted this passage from Spinoza’s letter to Oldenburg:

All things I say are in God and move in God, and this I affirm together with Paul and perhaps together with all ancient philosophers, though expressed in a different way, and I would even venture to say, together with all the ancient Hebrews, as far as may be conjectured from certain traditions, though these may have suffered much corruption. As to the view of certain people that the Theological-Political Treatise rests on the identification of God with Nature (by the latter of which they understand a kind of mass of corporeal matter), they are quite mistaken (Letter 73 to Henry Oldenburg, 1675?).

Spinoza’s reference to Paul is to Acts 17:28: “…though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ as even some of your own poets have said.”

This close relation is echoed in a passage from the First Letter of John (4:13) which Spinoza quotes on the title page of his Theological-Political Treatise:

By this we know that we remain in God and that God remains in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

Someone asked whether Spinoza’s conception God was really just the same thing as Nature, at least Nature more broadly conceived. This could be encapsulated in the expression deus sive natura, “God or Nature” used in the Ethics, Preface to Part Four.

The problem I think  is that unpacking Spinoza’s concept of Nature is just as hard as understanding his definition of God. He draws a distinction, based on medieval scholastic terminology between the active, creative power of Natura naturans (“Nature naturing”) and Natura Naturata (“Nature natured”), the passive, created aspect. The first he identifies with God and His attributes, the second with the finite modes – the individual beings that make up the world. This second aspect seems to correspond with our contemporary use of the word Nature, but while the modes (finite objects and ideas) depend on God for their existence, they do not completely constitute God. But how should we understand the relation between the two?

A clue to the resolution of this might be found in the medieval Jewish compilation, the Yalkut Shimoni (Gathering of Simon):

Why do we use a pseudonym and call the Holy One ‘place’ (makom)? Because He is the place of the world and the world is not His place. (Remez 117).

Spinoza’s God contains the world but is not a being in the world – or merely the world itself. Nature is entirely in God, caused by God and can only be understood through the concept of God. However as God acts from the “necessity of His own being” in causing the world, then God cannot exist without Nature also existing, any more than Nature can exist without God. This intimate connection, a kind of sameness perhaps, between two seemingly distinct concepts is a key motif in Spinoza. Perhaps just as he asserts the identity of, as well as the explanatory disconnection between, mind and body, he also understands that there is both identity and difference between God and Nature.

Perhaps what really matters is that we, as finite beings, reflect on and recognise how we participate in God, particularly in God’s infinite love, and live our lives accordingly. Spinoza’s notion of the “infinite love of God” encapsulates not just God’s love of Himself and of human beings, but our love of God.

 As the previous verses in John’s letter urge:

Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (I John 4:11-12).

The Idea of the Body: Spinoza on Mind and Emotion


Ethics IIP13

This is an edited version of a talk I gave at Pinner Philosophy Group on 14 May 2018

Here, in the first part of the 21st century, we all seem to be suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, the philosopher of mind David Papineu has declared, ‘We are all physicalists now’.[1] Only a minority of philosophers – and perhaps no natural scientists – endorse substance dualism: the view that mind and body are distinct substances, or completely different types of stuff. It seems that we all subscribe to a form of monism, holding that there is only one substance or type of substance, just one single reality.

Or do we? Edwin Curely has suggested that Cartesian dualism is ‘educated common sense’[2] – simply the way that adults in our culture conceive of the world in terms of the mental and the physical.

In 2006, in a tragic turn of events, a British man, John Hogan pushed his two children from a balcony in Crete and then jumped after them, following an argument with his wife. Hogan and one of the two children survived, but his six-year-old son sadly did not. Joannis Nestoros, a professor of psychiatry from the University of Crete, conducted a series of interviews with Hogan (who was later found not-guilty of murder on grounds of insanity). He said, ‘The situation will not reoccur, the only possibility is self-harm and suicide because of the guilt. His body did this, not his brain – he wasn’t himself that night.’[3]


Framing the mind-body problem

On the 16 May 1643, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia began a lengthy correspondence with Descartes. In her first letter, she raised a problem with his ‘real distinction’ between mind and body, which Descartes held to be different substances:

So I ask you please to tell me how the soul of a human being (it being only a thinking substance) can determine the bodily spirits, in order to bring about voluntary actions. For it seems that all determination of movement happens through the impulsion of the thing moved, by the manner in which it is pushed by that which moves it, or else by the particular qualities and shape of the surfaces of the latter. Physical contact is required for the first two conditions, extension for the third. You entirely exclude the one [extension] from the notion you have of the soul, and the other [physical contact] appears to me incompatible with an immaterial thing.[4]

Descartes’ attempt to explain how such mind-body interaction could take place, eventuated in his Passions of the Soul where he claimed that the mode of interaction could be explained through the operations of the pineal gland, which he designated the ‘principle seat of the soul’.

[T]he machine of the body is so composed that, merely because this gland is moved diversely by the soul or any other cause there may be, it drives the spirits that surround it toward the brain’s pores, which guide [the spirits] through the nerves into the muscles, by means of which it makes them move the members.[5]

Like Elisabeth, Spinoza failed to see how it could be possible that a thinking substance, a mind, could interact with the extended or physical substance, the body. Descartes’ putative solution, which Spinoza called ‘a hypothesis more occult than any occult quality’, cuts little ice:

Again, I should like very much to know how many degrees of motion the mind can give to that pineal gland, and how great a force is required to hold it in suspense. For I do not know whether this gland is driven about more slowly by the mind than by the animal spirits, or more quickly […] And, of course, since there is no common measure between the will and motion, there is also no comparison between the power, or forces, of the mind and those of the body. Consequently, the forces of the body cannot in any way be determined by those of the mind (V Preface).


A monist solution

According to Spinoza’s version of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR), everything must have a cause.

For each thing there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for its existence and for its nonexistence (IP11D).

It is important to note that the ‘cause’ and ‘reason’ are not distinguished here but conflated as terms which are almost equivalent. Because attributes can only be conceived through themselves, it follows that each mode can only be explained under one attribute (IIP6). Putting this together with the PSR, it follows that each mode will form part of a causal chain of modes of the same attribute.

Spinoza gives very little space to arguing for the parallel relation between modes of extension and modes of thought, boldly asserting that it follows clearly from IA4, the axiom which states:

The knowledge of an effect depends on, and involves, the knowledge of its cause.

However, perhaps we can fill in the gaps. Let us say the relata of an instance of a cause and an effect to be two modes of extension E1 and E2 respectively. Now, according to IIP3, there is an idea in God of everything that follows from his essence. Therefore there must be ideas, modes of thought that correspond to E1 and E2. We can call these T1 and T2 respectively. Given the explanatory dependence asserted in IA4 (‘The knowledge of an effect depends on the knowledge of its cause’), the knowledge of the thing E2, that is to say the idea T2, depends on the knowledge of E1, which is to say the idea T1. So we arrive at a correspondence relation between modes of extension and modes of thought.

As each effect is itself a cause, the chains continue ad infinitum:

… → T1 → T2 T3

… → E1 E2E3

Of course the relations of cause and effect might involve one cause with several effects and vice versa, creating a network of causal nodes. But what is important is that the network of ideas is isomorphic with the network of things: there are two corresponding systems with a one-to-one relation between modes of extension and modes of thought mapping causal and explanatory chains in one onto causal and explanatory chains in the other. [6]

Spinoza states this succinctly:

The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things (IIP7).

This central proposition expresses a theory often referred to as Spinoza’s parallelism, a term which conjures up the image of two distinct rails, which always follow one another but never meet. In one way this image is helpful, as Spinoza rules out interaction between modes of different attributes as I shall later explain. However there is another equally important sense in which it is misleading. From the premise that there is only one substance, comprehended sometimes under one attribute and at other times under another attribute, Spinoza holds that similarly, ‘a mode of extension and the idea of that mode are one and the same thing, but expressed in two ways’ (IIP7S).

So what we have now is not two entities running on parallel rails. Rather we might think of a single causal/logical chain of interacting bodies/ideas, perhaps more like a monorail, a single process that can be viewed from different sides, in different ways, manifesting itself to us under two different attributes (mind and extension). The view that an object (or ‘formal’ being) is identical to the idea (or ‘objective’ being) that represents it is grounded in the medieval scholastic conception of ideas as having what they called esse intentionale. This is a form of being that objects have in thought, so that an idea and its object have, as Lloyd suggests, ‘a kind of sameness’.[7] Spinoza gives an example of a circle that exists in nature and the idea of the circle (IIP7S). Both are in God or Nature and are identical to each other. The difference only pertains insofar as they are conceived either under the attribute of extension or the attribute of thought.


The identity of mind and body

Spinoza now applies his conception to the relationship between the human mind and the human body. The human mind is a finite idea, and one that must have as its object an existing finite thing (IIP11).

Spinoza’s argument rests on two axioms – claims for which he does not argue, taking them to be self-evident:

We feel that a certain body is affected in many ways. (IIA4)

We neither feel nor perceive any singular things, except bodies and modes of thinking. (IIA5).

Since as embodied human beings we are aware of the ways in which our body is affected (IIA4) and can feel nothing other than the body or the mind itself, the object can be no other than the human body:

The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body, or a certain mode of extension, which actually exists, and nothing else (IIP13).

A human being (‘man’) is an individual that consists of a complex mode of thought, the human mind, and a complex mode of extension, the human body (IIP13C). However, rather than these being two distinct parts of each individual human, their relation is once again one of identity:

The mind and the body are one and the same individual, which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, now under the attribute of extension (IIP21S).

There remains the vital question of how the causal and explanatory relation between the modes of different attributes is to be understood. The conception of an attribute cannot involve the conception of any other attribute (IP10). It follows that a mode of a given attribute can only have God for its cause, as expressed under the same attribute (IIP6). A causal relation between modes of different attributes would contradict this, requiring one attribute to be conceived through another. This entails what has come to be called Spinoza’s ‘explanatory barrier’ between the attributes:

The body cannot determine the mind to thinking, and the mind cannot determine the body to motion, to rest, or to anything else (if there is anything else) (IIIP2).

In this way, the problem of interaction simply does not arise for Spinoza in the same way as it does for Descartes. All the same, Spinoza is quick to admit that his audience will find this claim counter-intuitive:

They are so firmly persuaded that the body now moves, now is at rest, solely from the mind’s command and that it does a great many things which depend only on the mind’s will and its art of thinking (IIIP2S).

Spinoza is not daunted by the task of overcoming his readers’ firm persuasion. He claims the evidence of our experience supports his arguments. For example, sleepwalkers perform actions when asleep that they would not do when awake, so demonstrating that the body is capable of acting from its own nature alone. So in the face of our Cartesian intuitions, Spinoza insists that it is simply not the case that bodily movements arise from the mind or that the mind animates the body. Even if contemporary science could not yet account for the way the body functions, there is no reason in principle that the movements of the body could not be given a purely physical explanation. As he points out, ‘no one has yet determined what the body can do, that is, experience has not yet taught anyone what the body can do from the laws of Nature alone’ (IIIP2S).

It is key to Spinoza’s project that the laws of Nature should be understood as applying universally, in the human sphere just as they do everywhere else:

Therefore, I shall treat the nature and powers of the affects, and the power of the mind over them, by the same method by which, in the preceding parts, I treated God and the mind, and I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies (IIIPref).


The Affects

Spinoza aims to address the tensions in Cartesianism by naturalizing human psychology. He sets out to show that the mind, as the idea of the body, is subject natural laws, just like the rest of nature:

The affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, and the like, considered in themselves, follow with the same necessity and force of Nature as the other singular things. […] I shall consider human actions and appetites just as if it were a question of lines, planes, and bodies. (III Preface)

Spinoza describes and explains the passions using the psychological language of beliefs and desires. However, it must be remembered that for Spinoza, each of these ideas, is an idea of some thing, and that thing exists in the body (IIP13).

Spinoza defines a passion twice, the first time in the definitions of Part III:

By affect I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections.

Therefore, if we can be the adequate cause of any of these affections, I understand by the affect an action; otherwise a passion (IIID3).

There are two key features of the way Spinoza defines a passion. Firstly, it is a change that the individual undergoes, either positively, by becoming more capable (passing to a greater perfection or having a greater power of acting), or negatively, becoming less capable (passing to a lesser perfection or having a lesser power of acting). Secondly, while affects can be both actions and passions, Spinoza understands the passivity of the passions, as determined by the fact that their cause comes, at least in part, from outside the individual. Actions on the other hand have their cause wholly caused within the individual.

This can also be understood under the attribute of thought. As distinct from an action, the passion is caused by both an idea in the mind (which must be an idea of a state or change of the body), and an idea that exists outside it: the idea of an external object:

The actions of the mind arise from adequate ideas alone; the passions depend on inadequate ideas alone (IIIP3).

This conception of a passion in terms of ideas is elaborated in Spinoza’s second definition of a passion, which incorporates both its mental and physical aspects:

An affect which is called a passion of the mind is a confused idea, by which the mind affirms of its body, or of some part of it, a greater or lesser force of existing than before, which, when it is given, determines the mind to think of this rather than that (III General Definition of the Affects).

Spinoza identifies a passion (under the attribute of thought) as a confused or inadequate idea. But an idea in the mind must always be an idea of something in the body, and for Spinoza, the idea’s corresponding object is the increase or decrease in the perfection of the body, and so also, its power of acting.


The Primary Passions and the Conatus

Spinoza lists three primary affects: desire, joy and sadness. Central to his psychology is the concept of conatus, the essential striving of a thing, including the human individual, to persevere in its being (IIIP6). When related to the mind and body together, Spinoza terms this striving “appetite” and he explains desire, the first of the affects, as “Appetite together with consciousness of the appetite” (IIIP9S).

Things can both increase or diminish the body’s power of acting and correspondingly the mind’s power of thinking. This accounts for the other two primary passions. Joy is the passage from a lesser to a greater perfection, and sadness, the passage from a greater to a lesser perfection (IIIP11; III Definitions of the Affects II & III).


Love, hate and anger

Spinoza explains the secondary passions through relations between primary passions and ideas, as can be seen, for example, in his definition of love:

Love is a joy, accompanied by the idea of an external cause (III Definitions of the Affects VI).

For Spinoza, it seems, no physiological description is needed. Each passion can be explained as a species of desire, joy or sadness, defined by its relation to an idea or belief.

According to Spinoza, the mind both strives to persevere in its being and is conscious of this striving (IIIP9). Therefore, when the mind imagines things that diminish the body’s power of action (which might include apprehension through the senses as well as forming a mental image), then it strives to recollect that which excludes the existence of such things. Given his definition of love as a joy (an increase in power) with an imagined external cause, if follows that the lover will wish to continue to imagine or experience the beloved object, and so,

We see, then, that one who loves necessarily strives to have present and preserve the thing he loves (IIIP13S).

Spinoza makes little reference to the physiological aspects of passions, and anger is no exception. Rather he defines it in terms of two other passions: desire, a primary passion, and hate, which is produced in a similar pattern to love, but by the combination of the opposite primary passion (sadness), along with a belief:

Hate is sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause (IIIP14).

Spinoza takes a view here of the affected (or impassioned) individual as being, in some sense rational. If he hates someone, that is if he has the idea of that person as the cause of his sadness, he will desire and strive to remove that cause (IIIP39). The definition of anger then, takes hate as the cause or motive of a species of desire:

Anger is a desire by which we are spurred, from hate, to do evil to one we hate (III Definitions of the Affects XXXVI).

Spinoza’s quasi-mathematical approach to understanding emotion should not be seen as purely an attempt to create a systematic science of human affects for its own sake. Towards the end of the Ethics, we learn that humans can achieve at least a degree of freedom from negative emotions, not through sheer force of will, but by the power of understanding. It is by virtue of our knowledge we attain power over our passions.

In particular, we need to understand that excessive love towards an object that is impermanent (for example riches and fame) can only lead to bondage to negative passions:

Next, it should be noted that sickness of the mind and misfortunes take their origin especially from too much love toward a thing which is liable to many variations and which we can never fully possess. For no one is disturbed or anxious concerning anything unless he loves it, nor do wrongs, suspicions, and enmities arise except from love for a thing which no one can really fully possess.

From what we have said, we easily conceive what clear and distinct knowledge – and especially that third kind of knowledge, whose foundation is the knowledge of God itself-can accomplish against the affects. Insofar as the affects are passions, if clear and distinct knowledge does not absolutely remove them, at least it brings it about that they constitute the smallest part of the mind. And then it begets a love toward a thing immutable and eternal, which we really fully possess, and which therefore cannot be tainted by any of the vices which are in ordinary love, but can always be greater and greater and occupy the greatest part of the mind and affect it extensively. (VP20S)

Why should any of this matter today? After all, we have much more sophisticated understandings of brain functions, a neuroscience informed by experiments using fMRI scans and are equipped with the means to alter mood with psychotherapeutic drugs. Why do we continue to study the somewhat opaque writings of a seventeenth century lens-grinder, and attempt to makes sense of his difficult and sometimes obscure ideas on the mind-body relation


The brain’s mappings of the body

The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has throughout his career questioned the ‘Cartesian common sense’ that would separate mind and body, reason and emotion as binary opposites. In this he was inspired by Spinoza’s notion that both the mind and the body were parallel attributes of the very same substances. He writes

Spinoza was serving notice of his opposition to the view of the mind-body problem that prevailed in his time. His dissent stood out in a sea of conformity. More intriguing, however, was his notion that the human mind is the idea of the human body. This raised an arresting possibility. Spinoza might have intuited the principles behind the natural mechanism responsible for the parallel manifestations of mind and body […] I am convinced that mental processes are grounded in the brains’ mappings of the body, collections of neural patterns that portray responses to events that cause emotions and feelings. Nothing could have been more comforting than coming across this statement of Spinoza’s and wondering about its possible meaning.[8]

You too may still be wondering what Spinoza meant by ‘the mind is the idea of the human body.’ But perhaps, like me it is this kind of wonder that drives your engagement with philosophy – the love of and search for wisdom or understanding. I hope that I have been successful, if not in making crystal clear what Spinoza meant in IIP13, at least in sharing some of my own sense of wonder about how one great philosophical minds understood the mind and its identity with the body.



All quotations from Spinoza’s Ethics are from the translation by Edwin M. Curley, published in Penguin Classics. Also available in E.M. Curley (A Spinoza reader: The Ethics and other works. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994) and The collected works of Spinoza Vol I (Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 1988).

[1] David Papineau, ‘Physicalism and the Human Sciences’ accessed 1.6.18

[2] Edwin Curley, Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988)

[3] ‘Mum tells of balcony death plunge’ Wales Online, 22.01.2008 accessed 15.05.18

[4] Lisa Shapiro (Ed.), The Correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and Rene Descartes (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2007), p.62.

[5] Rene Descartes, Passions of the Soul, Tran. Stephen H. Voss, (Indianapolis: Hackett,1989), p.38.

[6] I paraphrase Jonathan Bennett, (‘Spinoza’s Mind-Body Identity Thesis’, Journal of Philosophy, 1981, Vol 78, No 10. pp 573-584). However, this picture still omits all but the two known attributes. Whatever other attributes there are, there must be a similar relationship between their modes and ideas of their modes.

[7] Genevieve Lloyd, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics (London: Routledge,1996), p.49

[8] Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain. London : Heinemann, 2003

A man of substance

Thank you to everyone who came my class on Baruch Spinoza at the London School of Philosophy. We focused almost entirely on Spinoza’s metaphysics, his argument for substance monism, that there is only one substance, God, and that everything that exists is in God. As so often with a great philosopher, it’s almost impossible to provide an adequate introduction in a single session. This is why I chose Spinoza’s conception of God as the one substance, as the topic of the class: it doesn’t do justice to the breadth of his ideas, but his monism is fundamental to them all.

spinozaThe most difficult aspect to our modern, post-Kantian sensibilities is the way that Spinoza purports to prove the existence of God from a definition: the necessary existence of substance. In a letter to his friend Ludovic Meyer, Spinoza wrote:

The first things that I should like to be noted about Substance are the following–First, that existence pertains to its essence, that is, that its existence follows from its mere essence and definition.

We recall that Spinoza defined substance as not depending on anything else for its existence or for it to be conceived. Consequently he argued that it must be causa sui – the cause of itself. And if the cause of itself, then it must exist necessarily. These kind of ontological arguments now seem to us, to say the least, unconvincing. But perhaps Spinoza is not trying to convince any of his contemporary readers, let alone a twenty-first century (new) atheist. Maybe as a Jew, even after his expulsion from his community, he took God’s existence as a given, as obvious as the existence of the universe, of reality or of being itself. One could counter that perhaps nothing exists, but in that case, you’re really not playing the game –  you’re no longer doing metaphysics.

The question I’ve been pondering these last few days whether we need metaphysics at all to philosophize. If what draws us to philosophy is some kind of existential dissatisfaction, a nagging doubt that we are only living, and not living well, then why not cut to the chase,  bypass the seemingly unanswerable ‘What is?’ and go directly to the more pressing question of ‘What is it we should be doing?’

In the structure of the Ethics, Spinoza very approximately follows the conception of philosophy of his great predecessor René Descartes. Using a memorable analogy, Descartes wrote in the Principles:

Thus the whole of philosophy is like a tree. The roots are metaphysics, the trunk is physics, and the branches emerging from the trunk are all the other sciences, which may be reduced to three principal ones, namely medicine, mechanics and morals. By “morals” I understand the highest and most perfect moral system, which presupposes a complete knowledge of the other sciences and is the ultimate level of wisdom. (9B:14).

When Spinoza finally gets to the ethics of the Ethics, we see why the unity of Substance and the fact not only of our own inclusion as a ‘part of Nature’ but also of the essential – and metaphysical – interconnection of all humans, gives firm support to a creed of cooperation and a spirit of brotherly love.

 To man, then, there is nothing more useful than man. Man, I say, can wish for nothing more helpful to the preservation of his being than that the minds and bodies of all would compose, as it were, one mind and one body; that all should strive together, as far as they can, to preserve their being; and that all, together should seek for themselves the common advantage of all (IVP18S).

What is more, Spinoza, somewhat optimistically, describes a virtuous spiral by which the more we seek knowledge and attain it, the  more we wish to share it with others:

The good which everyone who seeks virtue wants for himself, he also desires for other men; and this desire is greater as his knowledge of God is greater (IVP37).

Throughout the Ethics, there appears to be a consistent blurring of the boundaries of the conventional self. For the person seeking freedom, this is not so much something that is achieved but realized through the (self-)knowledge of our metaphysical status as mere modes participating in the Divine substance. Spinoza’s God is not then a distinct and distant being; nature is not an object, not even a unique object to which any countable noun could refer. I rather agree with Arne Næss that if we could really see through an only apparently separateness between individuals, then acts of kindness, generosity and compassion would seem to us not altruistic, but self-interested, an identification with a larger whole that transcends not only ourselves but even family and community.

A more recent Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas expresses such a view beautifully:

Monotheism is not an arithmetic of the divine. It is the perhaps supernatural gift of seeing each human person as being absolutely similar to the human person in the diversity of the historical traditions which each person continues. It is a school for xenophilia and antiracism.

(‘Monothéisme et langage’ in Difficile liberté)

Physician heal thyself

Philosophers seem to be a high-risk group for severe mental breakdown. Or perhaps it is the experience of coming through a crisis that creates such a strong motivation to search for deeper questions about the nature of reality and the human condition. The Scottish philosopher David Hume, for instance, underwent a psychological crisis in his early twenties after four years of intensive study. But he survived and went on to create a radical empiricist philosophy that Kant claimed woke him from his “dogmatic slumbers”.

Another example is the twelfth-century philosopher and physician Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides. After his younger brother David was drowned at sea on a voyage to India, Maimonides spent an entire year “prostrate in bed with a severe inflammation, fever and numbness of heart, and well-nigh perished.” The Maimonides scholar Joel E. Kraemer has suggested that Maimonides was suffering the kind of severe depression caused by traumatic separation that would make him susceptible to recurrent episodes of the malady throughout his life [1].

Eight years later, Maimonides wrote :

How can I be consoled? For he was my son; he grew up upon my knees; he was my brother, my pupil. It was he who did business in the market place, earning a livelihood, while I dwelled in security…Were it not for the Torah, which is my delight, and for scientific matters, which let me forget his sorrow, I would have perished in my affliction.

Maimonides achieved fame as a court physician in Egypt, possibly to Saladin, among other royal patients. He wrote a large number of treatises covering different aspects of medicine including the treatment of melancholia. His  philosophical work The Guide of the Perplexed had a lasting effect, not only on subsequent Jewish thought, but on the whole of Western philosophy, influencing Aquinas, Spinoza and Leibniz.


[1] “Moses Maimonides: An Intellectual Portrait” in Seeskin, Kenneth. The Cambridge Companion to Maimonides. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.  The quotation is taken from this essay.


I am leading a study session on Spinoza and the Intellectual Love of God for Beit Klal Yisrael on Saturday 24 May, during which we will look at Maimonides’ view on the love and knowledge of God and exploring how this may shine a light on Spinoza’s ideal. Details at

The delicate geometry of Spinoza


Thank you to everyone who came along to the study session at BKY on Saturday 15 February. I’m not exaggerating when I write that for me it’s a real privilege to be able to discuss the ideas of Baruch Spinoza – a philosopher who both fascinates and bewilders me in equal measure ­– with a group of thoughtful and interested people. And I hope you feel you learned as much from the session as I did.

I am part way through writing up a summary of the session which I’ll post here in a day or two, so please check back.

Meanwhile, while you’re waiting, here’s some poetry by the Argentinian poet and writer, Jorge Luis Borges:

Baruch Spinoza

Like golden mist, the west lights up
The window. The diligent manuscript

Awaits, already laden with infinity.

Someone is building God in the twilight.

A man engenders God. He is a Jew

Of sad eyes and citrine skin.

Time carries him as the river carries

A leaf in the downstream water.

No matter. The enchanted one insists

And shapes God with delicate geometry.

Since his illness, since his birth,

He goes on constructing God with the word.

The mightiest love was granted him

Love that does not expect to be loved.

trans. Yirmiyahu Yovel

Spinoza’s God, Self and Ecology


I’m giving a talk at 7.30pm tonight at Kant’s Cave, a series of lectures organsied by Philsosophy for All.


What I am going to do as best I can is to sketch out how we might understand Spinoza’s God or Nature”. Then I will try and explore what Spin’s metaphysics ­– how he understands reality at the fundamental level – means for how we understand ourselves. What makes an individual for Spinoza and how does it relate to Spinoza’s God?


 In part 2 I am going to switch to the subject of environmental philosophy and see how some of Spinoza’s statements suggest that he may give little comfort to those seeking an ethic of concern for nature. I’ll then show how a recent Spinozist philosopher, has based an environmental philosophy – Deep Ecology – not on ethics but on Spinoza’s metaphysics: his conception of the self and its place in Nature. Finally I’ll conclude that Deep Ecology places too much emphasis on self-actualization, and would do better to stress a more fruitful element in Spinoza’s thought: the Intellectual Love of God.


7.30pm Wednesday 4 December 2013: Upstairs at the Exmouth Arms at 1 Starcross Street, London NW1 2HR. The Exmouth Arms is in a quiet residential street about five minutes walk from Warren Street, Euston and Euston Square stations.

Philosophy for All

Details on Meet up


Ways into reading Spinoza

spinbooks-2How do you solve a problem like (reading) the Ethics? Try not to get put off by the appearance of the geometrical method. At a first look, you may open the book to find dry definitions, arcane axioms and a series of propositions, pared-down to provide an economical and rigorously argued logical progression from premises to conclusion. However, don’t skip over the scholia (referred to as “notes” in some translations) or the prefaces and appendices, where Spinoza lets his hair down a bit, allowing himself a more conversational engagement with the reader. I would also argue that the book can be approached in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out, following meandering trails signposted by the constant cross-references in the text, getting pleasantly lost as one might in a well-written encyclopaedia. Whether Deleuze himself says this or not, I’d suggest that the book can be taken as rhizomatic, allowing for multiple entry points, with each proposition being linked by uncountable paths to all the others. If you’re interested in the ethical-therapeutic angle, you could start with the Appendix to Part Four, where Spinoza summarizes his psychological results, providing simple advice on how to live with ourselves and with others. The other question about the Ethics is whether to read an introductory volume, or to approach the work with a fresh and open mind. The philosopher Stuart Hampshire writes:

I believe that everyone who has ever written about Spinoza, and who has tried to interpret his thought as a whole, either has been, or ought to have been, uneasily aware of some partiality in his interpretation, when he turns once again from his words to the original. Certainly this is my own position. (1)

While it is certainly true that every writer on Spinoza has their own standpoint, and reading “secondary” literature carries the danger of accepting a partial view as Spinoza’s own, historical distance can be hard to traverse unaccompanied. A wise companion can be of great assistance in overcoming the difficulties in understanding Spinoza’s seventeenth-century conceptual scheme. All the same, like Spinoza’s ring, I advise caution: even the clearest and most faithful commentary is no substitute for reading the text itself, given, of course, that even a translation is an interpretation. The following bibliography is anything but exhaustive. If you feel I’ve left out anything that you have personally found useful and relevant, please post a comment. It’s also almost certainly more than most people will ever read, myself included, but ask a librarian for a book and he or she will always return with arms full of ’em. And do check back, as I will be adding those that I think are most useful, as well as others that come to my mind or my notice.

Translations of the Ethics

Assuming that you’re not going to read it in the original Latin, the canonical translation of the Ethics (used by most current writers on Spinoza) is by E.M. Curley and has been included in at least three different titles.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1996). Ethics. London : Penguin, 1996.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M. (1994). A Spinoza reader: The Ethics and other works. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

→ Spinoza, B. d., & Curley, E. M.  (1988). The collected works of Spinoza Vol 1. Princeton, N.J. ; Oxford: Princeton University Press.

→ (In Finnish)  Spinoza, B. d. & Oittinen, V. (1994) Etiikka. Helsinki: Gaudeamus

Online translations:

→ The Ethics at Project Gutenburg Older translation by R.H.M Elwes, also still in print, published by Dover Publications.

→ The Ethics as audio file at LIbriVox (R.H.M. Elwes translation)

Spinoza, Ethics Demonstrated in Geometrical Order at Early Modern Texts Jonathan Bennett’s loose, modern language translation, more readable, less faithful to the original.


→ Nadler, S. M. (2001). Spinoza: A life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Excellent and meticulously researched biography by a prominent Spinoza scholar and philosopher.

→ Kayser, R. (1946) Spinoza, portrait of a spiritual hero. New York, Philosophical Library. Entertainingly written, more like a historical novel than a serious biography, with a short preface by Einstein.

Introductions to Spinoza and the Ethics

→Curley, E. M.  (1988). Behind the geometrical method: A reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. Seminal introduction, based on three lectures delivered at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1984, taking a materialist view of Spinoza’s metaphysics.

→ Della Rocca, Michael. (2008) Spinoza. London : Routledge, 2008. Clear and readable introduction, probably aimed at undergraduates. Central thesis is what Della Rocca refers to as the “principle of sufficient reason” (a phrase coined I believe not by Spinoza, but by Leibniz) which the writer holds as fundamental to Spinoza’s thought. Also has a useful index of propositions of the Ethics which means it can be used as a commentary and companion.

→ Lloyd, G. (1996). Routledge philosophy guidebook to Spinoza and the Ethics. London: Routledge. Concise and readable. → Nadler, S. (2006) Spinoza’s Ethics An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

→ Popkin, R. (2004) Spinoza.  Oxford : Oneworld. Readable introduction to Spinoza’s thought, including on religion and politics, and putting this into historical context.

→ Scruton, R. (2002). Spinoza: A very short introduction ([2nd ed].). Oxford: Oxford University Press. Very short introduction, as the name suggests, and by a very forthright British philosopher. A very much abridged version of this is also available in Finnish, published by Otava, but with so little remaining, it may not be good value for money!

→ Silverman, R.M. (1995) Baruch Spinoza – Outcast Jew, Universal Sage. Northwood: Symposium) 1995 Particularly useful on the Jewish philosophical context, tracing a thread from earlier Jewish thinkers through to recent critics of Spinoza, such as  Emil Fackenheim.

→ Smith, S. B. (2003). Spinoza’s book of life: Freedom and redemption in the ethics. New Haven, CT ; London: Yale University Press. Clearly written and accessible. Recommended. spinbooks-3 Reading further:

→ Bennett, J. F. (1984). A study of Spinoza’s Ethics. [Indianapolis]: Hackett. Quirky and partial, includes a chapter ‘Psychotherapy’, a very critical reading of Spinoza’s recommendations for working with the emotions. See Koistenen (1998) below for a partial rebuttal.

→ Deleuze, Gilles (1988) Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Lights. Not sure if this belongs in the “introductory” or “advanced” category, as the best part of it is a  glossary of the often archaic terminology found in Spinoza’s work.

→ Hampshire, S. (2005). Spinoza and Spinozism. Oxford: Clarendon. Written by a notable philosopher in his own right and one of a previous generation of commentators on Spinoza though still relevant. Beautifully written.

→ James, S. (1997). Passion and action: The emotions in seventeenth-century philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon. Contains a chapter on the psychology of Hobbes and Spinoza; by one of the foremost Spinoza scholars, who has recently published…

→ James, S. (2012). Spinoza on philosophy, religion, and politics: The Theologico-Political treatise. Oxford: Oxford University Press. A reading of Spinoza’s other great work, published in his lifetime, before the Ethics.

Koistinen, O. (1998). ‘Bennett on Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy’ A critique of Bennett’s critique of Spinoza’s prescription for the mind’s power over the emotions.

→ Koistinen, O. (2009). The Cambridge companion to Spinoza’s Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Edited volume including a chapters on the passions by Susan James and Michael LeBuffe.

→ Lloyd, G. (1994). Part of nature: Self-knowledge in Spinoza’s Ethics. Ithaca, N. Y. ; London: Cornell University Press. Examines Spinoza’s ideas of individuality, selfhood, and freedom in Spinoza’s Ethics.

Podcasts and videos

Susan James on Spinoza and the Passions at Philosophy Bites

Susan James arguing that you should vote for Spinoza

Spinoza: BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time”

Steven Nadler talk on Spinoza Part 1

Steven Nadler talk on Spinoza Part 2

Notes: (1) Hampshire, S (2005)  p. 175.