Of the man and his masks

Spinoza and Spinozism
April 7, 2006

This collection of the late Stuart Hampshire's writings on Spinoza brings together a sequence of works composed over more than 50 years: Spinoza: An Introduction to his Philosophical Thought , originally published by Penguin in 1951; Spinoza and the Idea of Freedom , a lecture published in 1972; a new introduction added to the first of these works in 1987; and a final essay, Spinoza and Spinozism , written between 2001 and 2004. Together, they allow us to trace the evolution of Hampshire's fascination with Spinoza as a philosopher who can help us hold up a mirror to ourselves.

As Hampshire points out, even the most revealing interpretations of Spinoza remain to some extent masks that "smooth over and cover up the opposing strains within his original thought". This remark aptly describes his own works on the subject, and one can think of them as four successive masks, each subtly different from its predecessor and representing a stage in Hampshire's engagement with analytical philosophy.

In his first, classic book, Hampshire made the whole range of Spinoza's ideas available to a general readership. One of his principal motives in writing the work emerges in its final chapter, in which Hampshire defends metaphysics in the face of its denigration by logical positivists and empiricists. Against the (then) fashionable view that metaphysical speculation had been superseded by the empirical sciences or arose merely from linguistic misunderstanding, he presents Spinoza as an author who rightly regards the existence of the universe as a problem requiring some general explanation. To appreciate the Ethics , he contends, "one must respect and enjoy the extravagant extension of pure reason in its furthest ambition, of which Spinoza is, after Plato, the greatest philosophical example".

Twenty years later, this orientation remained firmly in place, but Hampshire's interests were now focused on the themes of the major book he had published in 1959, Thought and Action . "I have the persistent feeling,"

he writes, "that in the philosophy of mind Spinoza is nearer to the truth at certain points than any other philosopher has ever been."

Among the truths to be found in Spinoza's work is the insight that each human being has a conatus - a fundamental urge to assert themselves by coming to understand the causal structures in which their own thought and feeling are embedded - and that as individuals extend their capacity for active self-determination they become more free. Moreover, Hampshire argues, this psychological thesis must guide any satisfactory conception of the moral end of action and any adequate analysis of political liberty.

Here, one might say, Hampshire commends Spinoza as a psychologist. However, in Spinoza and Spinozism , the most telegraphic and least persuasive of his attempts to get behind the mask, he characterises Spinoza as thinking like a biologist. One of the significant strengths of Spinoza's philosophy, he suggests, is that it is compatible with, and almost anticipates, our current theories of evolution and genetics.

Via metaphysics, mind, naturalist ethics and biology, these vivid and sensitive explorations of Spinoza's corpus at the same time chart the history of analytical philosophy in the second half of the 20th century.

Perhaps presciently, the story ends as it began - with metaphysics, though not with Hampshire's early conception of metaphysics as the study of questions that exceed empirical inquiry. Rather, so he concludes, the value of Spinoza's metaphysical system lies in the fact that it provides a framework that can accommodate the discoveries of the sciences.

Susan James is professor of philosophy, Birkbeck, University of London.

Spinoza and Spinozism

Author - Stuart Hampshire
Publisher - Clarendon Press, Oxford
Pages - 206
Price - £48.00 and £14.99
ISBN - 0 19 9953 5 and 9954 3

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