The Philosopher Spinoza and the Sciences

Author: Filip A. A. Buyse (Senior Visiting Researcher at the University of Oxford.)

Today, Spinoza (1632-1677) is one of the most popular early modern philosophers. The Dutch philosopher is well-known for his political philosophy which he explained in his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670) as well as in his unfinished Tractatus Politicus. He was one of the first thinkers to have defended radical democratic ideas. Of course, he is also known for his metaphysics which he explains in the first part of his posthumously published masterpiece, the Ethics (1677). As his well-known expression, Deus sive natura, illustrates, he identified Natura with God, and in searching for natural causes for natural phenomena, argued that Man is a part of nature which was generated by its laws, as opposed to having been created by the intelligent design of a transcendent God. During the last few decades, neurobiologists have also taken great interest in Spinoza’s work. One of the major reasons for this is his radical rejection of Descartes’ dualism; instead of arguing that mind and body are two distinct entities, Spinoza maintains that they are two distinct aspects of one and the same thing. This understanding of the mind-body relation is far more consistent with the scientific views of today.

Spinoza is, first and foremost, a philosopher. However, in his time, there was no strict distinction between natural philosophy and, what we today call, “science”. Many natural philosophers, such as Leibniz and Descartes, were also “scientists” just as many “early scientists”, such as Robert Boyle, were also philosophers. As his personal library illustrates, Spinoza was extremely interested in the developments of the new science. Moreover, when he lived in Rijnsburg (a small village near Leyden), he worked as a lens grinder, specifically for microscopes and telescopes, and often taught Cartesian mathesis to students of Leyden university. His skills as a lens grinder were highly praised by his contemporaries, Leibniz and Huygens. The publication of his private course on Cartesianism led to the publication of the only book he released under his name during his lifetime and to an invitation to become a professor at the University of Heidelberg. Ultimately, he declined this invitation, as he did not want to lose his intellectual freedom. In the same period, around 1661, according to Nicolas Steno (1638-1686), Spinoza visited anatomy dissections on a daily basis. Indeed, in a report to the Holy Office (dated 4 September 1677) found in the Vatican Archive, the Danish anatomist wrote that: “… in that period he [Spinoza] paid me daily visits to see the anatomical investigations of the brain that I carried out on several animals in order to discover the place where motions begins and sensations ends […]”.1

Himself interested in the work of the scientists of his day, later scientists, such as Einstein, would also draw inspiration from the work of the Dutch philosopher. The following sections of this article introduce a pair of scientists (an early physicist and an early chemist) with whom Spinoza was in contact, as well as an example of an important scientist, specifically a physiologist, who drew inspiration from Spinoza. The aim is to give the reader an idea of the link between Spinoza and the scientists, and to give an illustration of the historical importance of his philosophical ideas for science.

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