Saturday, November 18, 2006


Last September I finished reading the book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave us Modernity by Rebecca Goldstein. Reading that book brought back memories of my high school days, when I was taking philosophy classes and my teacher---a grey-haired, fine man by the name of Angelo Giordano I remember fondly---used to tell us about Baruch Spinoza's Ethics. I also recalled that, when I was a visiting researcher at INRIA-Sophia Antipolis in 1991, Gérard Boudol once told me that the "Dutch are more Cartesian than us French". (I hope I am quoting him correctly after all these years :-))

Reading Goldstein's warm account of Spinoza's philosophy and of his social and intellectual environment made me think that Spinoza's thought really has had a deep influence on the Dutch way of thinking (whatever that may be), and might indeed be one of the sources of the rationality that inbues Dutch society.

As Spinoza hints at in his writings, for every fact that is true, there is a reason why it is true. Since there are no arbitrary aspects of reality, logic itself must explain the world. In fact, logic itself is the world, which is just the collection of logical implications that make Nature.

Spinoza wrote:

"Thus in life it is before all things useful to perfect the understanding, or reason, as far as we can, and in this alone man's highest happiness, or blessedness, consists...."

I do not know whether I feel like endorsing Spinoza's vision completely, but I certainly feel that the intellectual process of beholding his vision of the world is an enriching one.

The closing words of Goldstein's book are a fitting climax to a well-written volume that I recommend heartily:

"The world has been transformed (though not enough) by a long and complicated chain of causes and effects that reaches back to Spinoza's choice to think out the world for himself."

I cannot help but feeling that the exercise of "thinking our way toward radical objectivity" would be a useful exercise for many of our leaders today.

You can also listen to a podcast interview with Rebecca Goldstein on the Nextbook website. Enjoy.

You might also wish to check out Rebecca Goldstein's other books. In particular, the novel The Mind-Body Problem is a favourite of mine. Readers of this blog will also enjoy the well-written, but at times somewhat flawed, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel.

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