- Series: Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts
- Paperback: 300 pages
- Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (June 19, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0521544793
- ISBN-13: 978-0521544795
- Product Dimensions: 5.4 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 6 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #391,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Spinoza's 'Ethics': An Introduction (Cambridge Introductions to Key Philosophical Texts) 1st Edition
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"Steevn Nadler's new book...is an excellent guide to Spinzoa's magnum opus and a substanial contribution to Spinoza scholarship. This is precisely the kind of book that Spinoza scholarship in English has needed for a very long time...It is a pleasure to read (or rather, study) Nadler's book, and it is a pleasure to respond to its challenges. This engaging introduction to Spinoza's Ethics is highly sophisticated, lucide, and comprehensive. It makes significant contributions to Spinoza scholarship, and I have little doubt that it will be a great asset to bot hbeginning students and advanced scholars." - Yitzhak Y. Melamed, University of Chicago
In this 2006 book, Nadler explains the doctrines and arguments of the Ethics and examines the philosophical background to Spinoza's thought and the dialogues in which Spinoza was engaged. He shows why Spinoza's endlessly fascinating ideas may have been so troubling to his contemporaries, as well as why they are still highly relevant today.
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I see no point in repeating what Nadler says about Spinoza. There are no obvious weak sections in the book, and the analyses of several themes are of very high quality. The discussion of Spinoza's atheism (so-called atheism?) is the best I have read in my (admittedly limited) foray into Spinoza scholarship. I was also very impressed with the chapters on Spinoza's theory of knowledge (Ch. 6) and virtue (Ch. 8). This is definitely first-rate philosophical commentary.
I do believe that this book is the best introduction to Spinoza. My study recommendations are as follows: (l) When reading the Ethics for the first time, read Nadler's book along side it. (2) On a second reading of the Ethics (and it should be read at least twice), read with it Bennett's rigorous work, A Study of Spinoza's Ethics. Upon completion of this demanding task one should have a working knowledge of one of the most difficult and important philosophers in the Western tradition.
Introductions to Spinoza vary greatly. Extremely short works such as Scruton's concise "Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction" or "Spinoza in 90 minutes" help to build a foundation but they may also leave lingering questions that only a larger work can answer. An excellent example of one such larger work is Steven Nadler's "Spinoza's Ethics: An Introduction." This book provides enough detail and background to help prepare the brave for an actual excursion into the primary text itself. It covers all aspects of the "Ethics" rigorously while remaining accessible to all but the absolute beginner. Those already possessing some background in philosophy could probably consider this a great first book on Spinoza, as it leaves very few questions unanswered and highlights those questions scholars still struggle with. Plus, it remains focused and only discusses Spinoza's other works and letters in the context of the "Ethics." It is not a survey of Spinoza's thought overall, though the contents of the "Ethics" covers many of his main ideas. It also covers the entirety of the "Ethics," Parts I through V, and valiantly grapples with the difficult questions that inevitably arise in such a work. Along the way, the ideas of Spinoza's contemporaries, particularly Descartes and Hobbes, are juxtaposed and contrasted with Spinoza's own ideas, which greatly punctuates Spinoza's often unique philosophical positions. Though not an easy book itself, it definitely illuminates the murkier parts of Spinoza's famous, and historically infamous, magnum opus.
The preface attempts a summary of the "Ethics" beguiling purpose: to "demonstrate the way to human happiness in a deterministic world." Though much of "Ethics" contains seemingly abstruse metaphysics and epistemology, it actually has a practical aim arguably attainable by nearly anyone. This is not philosophy for philosophy's sake, Spinoza was not a "professional" philosopher, but an actual system that strives for real world application. As such, it provides a description of the world for the purpose of delineating the possibilities of human fulfillment within that same world. Spinoza's thoughts remain controversial to the present day, but they paint a picture of human existence that, once brought on board, is difficult to ignore or dismiss offhand. The picture also feels surprisingly relevant and applicable to even modern ideas of humanity's place in the universe.
A short biography of Spinoza follows the preface. Nadler wrote one of the most acclaimed recent biographies of Spinoza (1999's "Spinoza: A Life") and this section summarizes that larger work's narrative, though it is by no means a substitute for it. Next, the Spinoza's esoteric geometric method, inspired by Euclid, receives an entire chapter. This provides theories and historical background as to why Spinoza decided on explicating his thoughts in such an unusual way. Here Nadler really helps the initiate cut through the tangle of the "Ethics" structure.
The first two chapters cover Part I, "On God." Spinoza's use of "God," and his use of many terms in general, probably provides the largest initial hurdle to penetrating the "Ethics." It also caused him heaps of trouble in his own lifetime. The famous phrase "Deus sive Natura," or "God or Nature," helps clear up Spinoza's intent. Spinoza's "God" is not the anthropomorphic Christian God, but a natural "force" or substance that has an essence of necessary infinite existence (thus there was no creation as written in Genesis). Essentially, it exists by its own nature and it depends on nothing else for its existence. It also exists unchoosing without purpose or goals and encompasses all ways of being. Everything derives from this one substance, including ourselves, as instantiations or "modes" of this substance. Substance also has infinite properties or "attributes" of which we can only know two: Thought and Extension. Nadler elucidates these stickly concepts as well as others such as "Natura naturans vs. Natura naturata."
A definite determinism arises out of Spinoza's metaphysics, one that readers may flinch at. Since we are all "in" "God" or "Nature" we remain subject to its absolutely necessary laws. As such, we live in the only possible world. It had to happen, as Nadler states. Nadler also does not consider Spinoza a "pantheist" but he does consider him an atheist, though Spinoza actually took offense to this label in his lifetime (for good reason, atheism wasn't looked upon favorably in the 17th century). Subsequently, Nadler also thinks the 19th century Romantics did not interpret Spinoza correctly when they deemed him a "God intoxicated man."
As to Spinoza's thoughts on humanity, he famously pronounced that we're not "a dominion within a dominion," but subject to necessary laws. His explanation of the human mind and body defies summary, but Nadler provides charts to help comprehend the complicated relationships between Thought, Extension and their corresponding modes. Both attributes are really the same thing expressed in two different ways, so Spinoza was no Cartesian dualist. Spinoza's epistemology includes "adequate" and "inadequate" ideas. To know something "adequately" means to get closer and closer to a full understanding of something's causal chain. Spinoza feels that humans live mostly with "inadequate" ideas and so form false notions of human existence, such as spontaneous freedom. He claims that if we knew the entire causal chain of our thoughts and actions, we would see that they were determined by a vast nexus of necessary laws. He also outlines three types of knowledge, the highest and most adequate coming from knowledge of essences, the least and most inadequate coming from experience.
Spinoza does allow some degree of human volition, though he denies that we have absolute freedom in the way many of us probably believe. He sees humanity psychology as subject to laws the same way a triangle or cube is subject to thier corresponding mathematical laws. This leads to his distinction between "action" and "passion." He believes we live with inadequate ideas (in "bondage") and so remain subject to anxiety, fear and other disturbances over things we cannot control because we don't possess adequate knowledge (which is not a finite resource and so won't lead to conflict) which will calm us to the vicissitudes of existence. Meanwhile, our "conatus" or life force, which also comprises our essence as finite modes, compels us onward. Given the nature of things, nothing is good or bad in itself. Things just exist. Though Spinoza does see an absolute good in understanding the world, which increases our knowledge of "God or Nature" and moderates the passions (we can never escape them completely). This involves active engagement with the world, not ascetic withdrawal, and the realization that everything is equal in perfection. So morality, as Nadler points out, becomes a sub-discipline of the study of nature. The ultimate aim remains "blessedness" or virtue itself, described as the human mind's love of God/Nature is the love of God/Nature for itself, but God/Nature loves no one, it just exists. Nadler sees this as the completion of Spinoza's "natural reduction" of all things religious.
In the final chapter, Nadler also deals with Spinoza's puzzling notion of "the infinite mind." Apparently some scholars dismiss it as nonsense. Nadler feels that many have ignored the influence that the tradition of Jewish Rationalism had on Spinoza's thought. Using this tradition, he proposes some ways out of the seemingly intractable contradictions some find in this part of the "Ethics."
Though no one today will likely accept Spinoza's system completely, and many questions remain, it nonetheless seems relevant to questions about our place in an exceedingly scientific world. As science delves deeper and deeper into the nature of the universe, many have begun to question, and some on scientific or neuroscientific grounds, whether our "free will" remains a "convenient illusion." Perhaps we're starting to see more links of our "causal chain" that Spinoza wrote about? Also, we do seem to see ourselves more and more as elements within nature and subject to its laws in a very Spinozistic way. If things continue to progress in this manner, Spinoza may serve as a foundation, perhaps the foundation, to morality in a world subject to scientific laws. In any case, whether Spinoza accurately outlined the idea of the human condition that would emerge centuries after his time or not, his philosophical achievement, flaws and all, nonetheless remains astounding. Appreciating its depth requires deep reading and Nadler's excellent book provides a great place to begin an intricate study of one of philosophy's most acclaimed and perplexing texts.
What Professor Nadler brought me to is Spinoza’s monism. In his monism—as opposed to Descartes dualism—the “mind is an idea of the body”: no body, no mind, no ‘me’. Enticing, no? And what is the mind but the idea-lized knowledge of the living me. And better yet, as all my knowledge that makes up my idea of me is all from the experience of life and living, at the last instant of cognizance (if such occurs), that’s the ‘me’ I’m taking with me into eternity. An instantaneous eternity, I guess. Granted, without the body. No after-life, no Super-natural beings or happenings; in fact, nothing outside the necessary, infinite, eternal Substance. And I thought, ‘I can live with that.’
Now after about seven years of reading texts about Spinoza, including Professor Nadler’s A Book Forged in Hell I feel as though I’m maybe ready to read and perhaps understand the finer points of Spinoza’s thought. I admired Professor Nadler’s courage in taking a position on some of Spinoza’s more controversial ideas—particularly this doctrine of the eternity of the mind. I am eternally grateful.
I hope I’m close enough to Professor Nadler’s explications; if not, I’m sure the further reading will straighten things out.