Small Creatures

Stuart Hampshire

  • Spinoza by R.J. Delahunty
    Routledge, 317 pp, £25.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 7102 0375 6

In the academic study of philosophy in English-speaking countries Spinoza is not usually considered an indispensable source for the central tradition, on a level with Descartes, Locke, Hume and Kant; and probably he never will be. Even advanced students of philosophy often proceed on their way through the 17th century towards Leibniz and Locke without reading the Ethics, Spinoza’s posthumously published definitive work. There are two principal reasons for this comparative neglect. First, a rebarbative style in unbeautiful Latin, full of scholastic terminology, redolent of the Middle Ages, as if he was living in an intellectual ghetto at a time when he and all Europe could read the new, transparent prose of Pascal and Descartes. There is a knotted gracelessness, an obstinate refusal to please, on the surface of his writing. Secondly, he made no useful contributions either to logic or to the philosophy of language, and these have become the dominant interests within English-speaking philosophy. A third reason is that he was a strangely confident metaphysician who had a complete system of the world and of our place within it, a system that he flatly declared to be demonstrably true. Untouched by a decent scepticism or by the conventions of authorial modesty, he can at times seem slightly crazy in his ambitions, as if he has been invented by Swift.

For Spinoza, as for most laymen at all times, philosophy is the pursuit of wisdom and of the salvation and happiness to be realised only in the right conduct of life. Philosophy takes over the functions of the historical religions, and the theory of knowledge replaces the prophets in telling us how to control the destructive passions and to cultivate the necessary virtues. There is a life of reason, which can set us free from worry and from fear, and fear is the strongest human emotion. The claim is the same as in the Stoics and Epicureans, and this pagan wisdom, which looks for peace of mind, for social peace and for peace among the nations, is exalted in the Ethics at the expense of Judaism and Christianity: dark superstitions, both of them, which engender hatred and war, Protestant against Catholic, Christian against Turk, unless restrained by philosophy. Spinoza was an intensely political writer, and the Thirty Years War, together with the preceding wars of religion, was the background of his thought, always remembered. Living in Amsterdam and The Hague, an excommunicated Jew, a supporter of the De Witts against the House of Orange, famous as an advocate of religious toleration, he wrote two works of political philosophy, and one of them was the only book of his that it was considered safe to publish in his lifetime. He added a subtle variation to the political realism of Machiavelli and Hobbes, because he believed that there must always be two levels of thinking, and two kinds of belief, operative in society and in the course of history: at one level, philosophical enlightenment and scientific understanding among an élite, and, at the second level, conventional morality, ordinary decency, sustained by the prophetic tradition still attached to the various religions. The social function of religion and of prophecy is to keep alive the rudiments of morality in the minds of men and women governed by feeling and by imagination, who are naturally incapable of abstract reasoning, and who are therefore incapable of tracing morality to its source in reasonable self-interest. Religion deserves toleration, when it is tolerant itself.

Mr Delahunty’s monograph is similar in its aims to Jonathan Bennett’s recent A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics: both books examine Spinoza’s principal arguments in the spirit of contemporary analytical philosophy, tracing the steps in every argument and checking their validity. Mr Delahunty is never obscure and he is never difficult to read. He usefully remarks the many gaps in Spinoza’s arguments, and Spinoza is indeed like other great philosophers – Hume and Kant, for instance – in that he communicates a vision and does not effectively establish a case, in spite of the displayed apparatus of strict argument. Mr Delahunty begins with Spinoza’s theory of knowledge and then proceeds to the metaphysics, which is probably the right order of exposition for the modern reader. He does not examine Spinoza’s politics in any detail. In the later chapters he makes some interesting, though inconclusive observations on his theory of immortality, which no commentator so far has interpreted convincingly.

In spite of these solid merits, I have some reservations about Mr Delahunty’s exposition and criticisms of Spinoza. He has evidently drunk deeply at the well of wisdom which is analytical philosophy as taught at Oxford, where wisdom takes the form of sedate common sense, nicely put and never straying too far from home. This habit of thought leads him to underestimate, or simply to misunderstand, the radical transformations of our thought which Spinoza intended. The consequence is that he repeatedly criticises Spinoza for overlooking obvious features of ordinary experience, as this experience is recorded in ordinary language, while also oddly expressing great admiration for Spinoza as a philosopher. To take one example, he writes, not quite accurately: ‘Spinoza has to represent it as a necessary truth that a passion will be eliminated once we clearly and distinctly understand it by recognising its cause.’ To this he objects that a dentist’s knowledge of the cause of his toothache will not cause the toothache to go away. This wholly misses Spinoza’s point, which depended on a re-definition of emotions (and toothache is not an emotion) as being discriminated by the subject’s thought of the object of the emotion as being the cause of the pleasure or pain which he is feeling. In place of the Hume-Russell account of the emotions, which represents them as sensations like toothache, Spinoza represents emotions as pleasurable or painful perceptions of connections in the world – perceptions which could be enlarged and transformed by reflection. They are not unthinking reactions, as toothache is: they are causal beliefs, primitive or rational, about persons and things, tinged with pleasure or pain. We are not compelled to categorise our feelings in Spinoza’s way, or to look through the Hume-Russell lens either. The analytical illusion is that there is an irresistible classification of the elements of our mental life which is independent of any particular theory of knowledge.

On the relation of the material and spatial world to the world of thought, and consequently on the relation between a person’s body and his mind, Mr Delahunty goes astray, I think, because he does not sufficiently stress the fundamental distinction in Spinoza, which is between the intellectual order of things, an eternal framework, and the common order of nature, a scene of constant change always seen under some restriction of perspective. The intellectual world enters our minds as mathematics and logic, amazingly. Mathematics enters our minds bearing the irresistible marks of truth and certainty, because its propositions refer only to features of reality which are present at all times and everywhere, and which are independent of any particular perceptions. They allow no conceivable alternatives. Apart from mathematics, we are to think of ourselves as small creatures dumped in a vast, unbounded universe, with limited sense organs and limited brains, and hence with mere fragments of knowledge of the world and of ourselves. It is contrary to our intellectual nature, but in accord with the common order of our nature, to spend our lives fussing about our local misfortunes. But we can with luck and with care learn to take pleasure in more extended views of reality and in the reduction of our own pretensions to knowledge to their proper proportions.

Mr Delahunty does not sufficiently stress the fact that Spinoza is almost alone among the great Western philosophers in treating ordinary human knowledge naturalistically, as a by-product of the causal interactions between human beings – comparatively insignificant in size and in the range of their perceptions – and their immediate environment. There is therefore no conceivable possibility of our perceptions of the world around us corresponding to the true order of things in nature. Only mathematical objects exist in nature possessing the very properties that we ascribe to them.

Spinoza’s programme is to introduce into psychology, morality and politics as much systematic thinking, following mathematical and logical models, as is possible for us, and to place immediate political and moral concerns in a larger framework of theoretical understanding. Such a programme may at present seem too abstract to be useful. Spinoza touches interests in contemporary philosophy at two principal points: first, in his theory of the mirroring relation between the activities of a person’s mind and the activities within his body, and, secondly, in his theory of the cognitive element in the emotions and of their possible correction and improvement. The mind-body theory is both ingenious and immensely obscure, and Mr Delahunty has not quite unravelled the knots.