Sunday, 3 April 2011

Spinoza - a natural philosopher

I once wrote a book about the seventeenth century philosopher Benedict Spinoza. As a non-philosopher, I knew this might be a dodgy thing to do. Anyway, I wrote the book because I had to get it out of my system. I like Spinoza and knew I could write a book about his philosophy from a layman’s perspective.

A little while later, I came across a book of all his existing letters. Till then, I’d relied on an abridged version which was all I’d been able to get hold of. Once I’d read Spinoza’s letters, it dawned on me that I’d misjudged an important aspect of his character.

Spinoza made a living by grinding lenses for use in fast-growing areas of scientific research such as microscopy and astronomy. He also carried out simple experiments as well as his optical studies. He even corresponded with Boyle on the combustion of nitre, where he comes across as keen to establish an empirical basis for some kind of atomic theory. In modern terms, Spinoza was at least as much a scientist as a philosopher. In fact a key section of his book ‘Ethics’ can be seen as an early form of behaviourism where human actions, ideas and emotions are explained by stimulus and response.

Yet today we classify Spinoza as a philosopher and in so doing we miss something important, as we usually do when we classify people. Spinoza wasn’t merely a philosopher, he was a natural philosopher too. One day I’ll rewrite the book.

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