19 febrero, 2015

Joshua Parens. Maimonides and Spinoza

Sean Winkler

Parens, Joshua. Maimonides and Spinoza: Their Conflicting Views of Human Nature, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012, 240 pp.

Joshua Parens begins his Maimonides and Spinoza by indicating that “[s]ince the 1960s, it has become commonplace to argue that Maimonides, not Spinoza, fired one of the first salvos in modernity or our modern secular world,” a view popularized by Harry A. Wolfson, Shlomo Pines, and Warren Zev Harvey. However, this was not always the case, as Maimonides had long been treated as “a great defender of Judaism,” and Spinoza as “one of its great opponents.” Parens suggests that not only is this latter characterization more accurate, but that returning to this long held position reveals a great deal more. Indeed, it shows the “distance [of Maimonides] from our own world and viewpoint, which has been so deeply shaped by the thought of Spinoza” (1).

As the subtitle—Their Conflicting Views on Human Nature—indicates, the focal point of the text centers on the conceptions of human nature in Maimonides and Spinoza, and how those concepts open onto entirely different worlds. Parens brings this to light throughout six chapters that highlight different sets of tensions between the two thinkers: “Desire (Shahwa) and Spiritedness (Ghadab) vs. Conatus,” “Veneration vs. Equality,” “Forms vs. Laws of Nature,” ”Freedom vs. Determinism,” “Teleology vs. Imagined Ideal,” and “Prudence vs. Imagination.” Each chapter advances its own argument, but incorporates insights from the previous, giving the text a sense of ever-expanding scope. Maimonides and Spinoza, for Parens, are two figures that foreground his wider preoccupation with the relationship between premodern and modern thought. Although he does not use the term, he seems to show that the divide between Maimonides and Spinoza is illustrative of a key ‘epistemic break’ between premodern and modern worldviews.

That break can be understood by focusing on a major methodological difference between premodern and modern philosophy. While premodern thinkers generally emphasize a distinction between theoretical and practical sciences, modern thinkers blur the distinction in favor of “universal method” (20n6, 100). For instance, argues Parens, “Aristotle often warns his readers not to expect the sciences to be undertaken in the same manner or according to the same method, or to be capable of achieving the same position” (20). Contrastly, modern philosophers—especially the early moderns—display a strong tendency toward building philosophical systems. René Descartes’s The World, Newton’s Principia Mathematica, etc., are good examples of this attempt to develop a so-called ‘theory of everything.’ In this respect, Maimonides shares far more in common with premodern than modern thinkers: “Like Aristotle, Maimonides places a premium on the differences between the sciences, as dictated by the difference in character of their various objects of inquiry” (20). Spinoza’s philosophy, however, epitomizes universal method; the Ethics, Parens claims, is the first text to place physics, metaphysics, and ethics “under one roof” (100, 20). The worldviews implied by these methods are, respectively, a premodern sense of the “ineliminable multiplicity of being” as opposed to the modern sense of being as a “system” (100).

In this review, I would like to focus on Parens’ characterization of this epistemic break according to his reliance on a lesser-known article by Richard Kennington from 1980, “Analytic and Synthetic Method in Spinoza’s Ethics.” Parens admittedly relies upon the text a great deal, and he dedicates the Appendix of Maimonides and Spinoza—entitled “Richard Kennington’s Spinoza and Esotericism in Spinoza’s Thought” (193–212)—to Kennington’s interpretation. It is an interpretation that vastly re-conceives Spinoza’s methodology and, consequently, his relationship to modern thought. For this reason, this review will focus predominantly on Parens’ treatment of Spinoza [1].

According to Kennington (as well as David Lachterman, whom Parens also references), the so-called ‘Physical Treatise’ (or ‘Physical Digression,’ as Lachterman calls it [2]) from IIp13s of Spinoza’s Ethics marks a distinctive break in the overall argument of the text [3]. Rather than making deductions following from the essence of God or Nature, the Physical Treatise begins as an enquiry into the nature of ‘bodies’ and ‘motion and rest,’ that then culminates in an account of God or Nature. In this respect, it does not rely upon previous deductions from Part I or Part II, suggesting that the Physical Treatise qualifies as a second beginning within the Ethics. More than just marking a new beginning, however, it also marks a change in methodology. It does not proceed from cause to effect through so-called ‘synthetic’ or ‘geometric method’ (which characterizes the majority of the Ethics), but from effect to cause, employing so-called ‘analytic method [4].

Spinoza himself never discusses the distinction between the analytic and synthetic methods in any of his writings. Lodewijk Meyer’s Preface to Principles of Cartesian Philosophy is the only reference to such a distinction in Spinoza’s entire corpus. Meyer’s reference is to Descartes’s distinction, who states that analytic method, “shows the true way by which a thing is discovered methodically and, as it were, a priori,” while synthetic method, “employs a long series of definitions, postulates, axioms, theorems and problems, so that if any of the conclusions be denied, it can be shown immediately that this is involved in what has preceded, and thus the reader, however reluctant and obstinate, is forced to agree” [5]. For Kennington, that Spinoza reviewed the preface and did not make any changes suggests that he agrees with the distinction identified as such [6].

Again, geometric method is generally regarded as one of the defining features of Spinoza’s Ethics—some treating it simply as a matter of style, while others take it to be completely inseparable from his thought. That Kennington maintains Spinoza as employing analytic method, then, is a radical claim. This is further radicalized by his claim that Spinoza’s two methods portray two very different philosophical systems. As he states, “[t]he geometric and analytic models of the Whole are disjunctive,” insofar that “[t]he first Whole is a substance with attributes, the other a Whole that is a compound of parts” [7].

Kennington goes on to explain that the definitions of Part I depend upon the analytic method of Part II. Beyond this, however, synthetic method fails insofar that it is unable to deduce the existence of so-called ‘finite modes.’ The account of substance can deduce its production of an infinite causal series, as exemplified in EIp28, but not a particular individual. This is particularly problematic when Spinoza’s highest form of knowledge consists of ‘knowledge of particulars’ [8].

Parens takes this one step further, suggesting that Spinoza does not simply make a careless error. Rather, given the distinction in Meyer’s preface, the content expressed according to synthetic method is mere presentation, while the content expressed according to analytic method expresses Spinoza’s true position. For Parens, then, Spinoza engages in a form of esotericism [9]. The concepts presented according to the synthetic method in the Ethics—i.e., substance, attributes, God, etc.—then are also meant only to subvert the reader’s expectations. According to Parens, “Spinoza conceals the depth of his break from premodern thought by dressing up his thought in premodern parlance” (11). The result is that Spinoza’s philosophy is neither the ‘pantheism’ nor Spinoza himself the ‘God-intoxicated man’ that Novalis makes him out to be. His philosophy is instead an atheistic naturalism. The language of God, beatitude, etc., are rendered null, and a number of Spinoza’s concepts are revealed as mere guises: ‘psycho-physical parallelism’ as a disguise for materialism—or, at least, a ‘materialist tendency’ (61)—, ‘essences’ in Spinoza as a disguise not for ‘forms’, but simply rather laws of nature (77–106), etc. The ultimate achievement of Spinoza’s system, then: “knowledge and love of God for Spinoza are little more than a proper understanding of where our body fits into the matrix of physical causes.” Thus, “[e]ven though Spinoza might appear to hold out a more spiritual account of such love, he does so only through smoke and mirrors.” What is left is a philosophy that serves simply as a “continuation of the Baconian project of mastery and possession of nature, itself a development of Machiavelli’s more narrowly circumscribed antitheological political project” (50).

That Parens regards the Physical Treatise as the proper beginning of Spinoza’s philosophy is controversial in several respects. Indeed, science—physics especially—is a preoccupation of Spinoza’s that should not be taken lightly, its often fragmented and sometimes inconsistent character notwithstanding. Crucial as Spinoza’s physics is, however, there is good reason to believe that Spinoza’s physics was an unfinished enterprise at the time of his death. Walther Ehrenfried von Tschirnhaus asks Spinoza in Ep. 60, “[w]hen shall we have your […] General Treatise on Physics?” to which Spinoza responds, “concerning motion […], since my views on these are not yet written out in due order, I reserve them for another occasion” [10]. Even as late as July of 1676, seven months before his death, Spinoza tells Tschirnhaus, with respect to his criticism of Descartes’s conception of the relationship between matter and extension, that, “I have not had the opportunity to arrange in due order anything on this subject” [11]. This is not to say that Spinoza’s physics is not a vital component of his philosophy, only that certain inconsistencies between his physics and the rest of his system may be the result of the former being a work in progress.

Furthermore, outside of EIIp13s, Spinoza upholds certain positions in his physics that do not depend on analytic method. His denial of the vacuum is one such example. While Ep. 14 shows Spinoza denying the existence of a vacuum through the results of a recently performed experiment, the experiment only serves to corroborate a position that he had already arrived at by virtue of synthetic method [12].

Likewise, it is not clear that synthetic and analytic methods actually do yield two different versions of Spinoza’s system. Kennington makes an excellent case for Spinoza’s reference to the ‘whole of nature’ in EIIp13lem7s as being at odds with the whole of nature as presented in Part I of the Ethics. Contrary to Kennington, however, I would add the possibility that this is simply an ambiguity in Spinoza’s use of terms—viz., between natura naturans and natura naturata [13]. If the whole of nature referenced in the Physical Treatise is meant to refer to both senses of nature, then there is indeed a blatant contradiction in Spinoza’s system. If, however, Spinoza means to refer to natura naturata alone, the contradiction simply dissolves.

There is reason to believe that Spinoza saw analytic method as implying the same system in Ep. 12 to Lodewijk Meyer. Here, Spinoza references Hasdai Crescas’ defense of the possibility of an infinite series:

If there is granted an infinite series of causes, all things which are, are also caused. But nothing that is caused can exist necessarily by virtue of its own nature. Therefore there is nothing in Nature to whose essence existence necessarily pertains. But this latter is absurd; therefore also the former [14].

This remark suggests that like Crescas, Spinoza maintains an infinite series to be possible so long as the series inheres in a necessary cause. Now, while an infinite causal series and an infinite body of the universe need not necessarily have overlapping rationales, it is not out of the question that unbounded time and unbounded space rely upon the same argument in Spinoza’s thought. If this is right, Ep. 12 shows Spinoza using analytic method to deduce the same whole implied in Part I of the Ethics, and EIIp13lem7s as referring only to God or Nature’s effects (the infinite modes), not God or Nature as cause (substance/attributes).

Likewise, there is good reason to suspect that Spinoza was very critical of analytic method as a method of discovery. In Ch. 10 of Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza—entitled “Spinoza against Descartes”—, Gilles Deleuze makes an excellent case for the fact that Spinoza would have been critical of analytic method insofar as proceeding from effect to cause leads to many of the abstractions and confusions about the nature of God that Spinoza meant for his philosophy to dispel [15 ]. As Deleuze states, “it does indeed seem that the analytic method ends naturally in an analogical conception of being […]. It is hardly surprising then that Cartesianism, in its own way, comes upon a difficulty already present in the most orthodox
Thomism” [16].

Likewise, Spinoza’s unfinished Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (TdIE) provides further reason to believe that Spinoza preferred synthetic over analytic method, although Parens hardly mentions this text. Of course, its incompleteness has led to considerable disagreement as to how it relates to Spinoza’s mature philosophy [17]. Herman De Dijn, however, has made a strong case that “the Treatise [on the Emendation of the Intellect] can be read as a perfect introduction to the Ethics” [18]. He defends this point insofar that the TdIE closes with Spinoza’s defining the proper conditions for a definition [19 ].While Spinoza never mentions synthetic or analytic method explicitly, what he describes in the TdIE bears a far stronger resemblance to the former than the latter. And while the composition of the TdIE likely predates the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy, Spinoza’s Ep. 60 to Tschirnhaus some years later shows him endorsing the same method: “the idea or definition of the thing should express its efficient cause” [20].

Parens is correct that the deduction of finite modes seems nearly impossible in light of EIp28. Nevertheless, according to Spinoza, there are two ways of conceiving of finite modes as actual: (1) “insofar as we conceive them as related to a fixed time and place,” and (2) “insofar as we conceive them to be contained in God and to follow from the necessity of the divine nature.” Although one could argue that these are incompatible, could this also be Spinoza’s attempt to portray the ambiguity of the finite mode as inseparable from the infinite set of other finite modes? [21]. Would this not also maintain that Spinoza’s third kind of knowledge genuinely “proceeds from an adequate idea of the formal essence of certain attributes of God to an adequate knowledge of the essence of things”? [22].

These are difficult matters to resolve, but what Parens sees as being at stake is clear. He explains that in the shift exemplified by Maimonides and Spinoza, we see that “[t]he old erotic, educative story about philosophy must be supplanted by a far colder and ‘more realistic’ story: love of wisdom is the endeavor to preserve oneself, even if by other, more complex means” (22). He goes on later to say that, “[u]nfortunately, the price of the general attack and Spinoza’s specific attack on transcendent objects was the loss of what Rousseau calls ‘fanaticism […] a grand and strong passion which elevates the heart of man.’” And perhaps most boldly: “We cannot help but wonder, then, whether Spinoza’s understanding of human nature was not flawed and Maimonides’s somehow deeper and more accurate” (188).

If Spinoza’s esotericism is in question, though, and his understanding of God, beatitude, etc., transformed rather than discarded, is his philosophy truly in line with Bacon or Descartes? Does Spinoza truly fit in this portrait of modernity? [23]. As De Dijn argues, while Descartes advances a ‘methodical doubt’ in the Discourse on Method, Spinoza purports a ‘moral doubt’ at the beginning of the TdIE. De Dijn suggests:

What seems to bother Spinoza, primarily, is not the uncertainty of traditional knowledge or the question of how to obtain a real foundation for the new science but rather the Stoic question of the good life: how to find it and how to escape the deadly obsession with the pursuit of ordinary goods. [24].

This paints Spinoza’s philosophy in a way that is far less frigid than Parens lets on. While I would agree that Spinoza makes an epistemic break with the premodern behind, it is not clear that he joins Bacon and Descartes to seek mastery over nature [25]. One could read the Ethics—Parts III–V especially—as Spinoza’s concern with how the new science reveals human emotions to be in congruence at all times with the order of nature. As much as Spinoza’s philosophy is modern, then, it seems to be also a reflection upon modernity, or perhaps a reflection of what a life in pursuit of the good might even look like at the dawn of the new era.

In conclusion, while I do have reservations with Parens’ position, he strikes a key nerve in his assessment of modern thought that deserves a great deal of attention. While I would recommend it to advanced scholars of Maimonides and Spinoza, it would also be of great interest to those interested in the nature of intellectual history (especially the epistemic break between premodern and early modern periods). I would recommend it to students seeking an introduction to Maimonides and Spinoza as well. Agree or disagree with Parens’ thesis, his position highlights vital aspects of both philosophers’ positions that invites valuable further discussion. His erudition is as careful and precise as it is provocative and, most importantly, educational. With a bold and compelling thesis, substantial research, and persuasive argumentation, Maimonides and Spinoza is an exemplary piece of scholarship and I extend it my highest recommendation.


1. I will refer to Spinoza’s works both by page references to the translation as well as by abbreviated references to specific passages. I will use the following abbreviations to refer to specific texts: CM for Metaphysical Thoughts [Cogitatia Metaphysica]; E for Ethics [Ethica]; Ep. for The Letters [Epistolas]; KV for Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being [Korte Verhandeling van God de Mensch en deszelfs Welstand]; PPC for René Descartes’s Principles of Philosophy [Renati des Cartes Principiorum Philosophiae]; TIE for Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect [Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione]; TP: Political Treatise [Tractatus Politicus]; and TTP for Theologico-Political Treatise [Tractatus Theologico-Politicus]. I will make reference to particular passages by numbering the part or chapter of the text accompanied by the following abbreviations: app (appendix), ax (axiom), c (corollary), def (definition), d (demonstration), lem (lemma), p (proposition), praef (preface), s (scholium). Thus, ‘EIp16d,’ for instance, refers to the demonstration of proposition 16 in Part I of the Ethics. Cf. Yitzhak Melamed, “Why Spinoza is not an Eleatic Monist (Or Why Diversity Exists,” in Spinoza on Monism, ed. Philip Goff (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 216.
2. D. LACHTERMAN, “The Physics of Spinoza’s Ethics,” in Spinoza: New Perspectives, ed. Robert Shahan (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1978), 75.
3. R. KENNINGTON, “Analytic and Synthetic Method in Spinoza’s Ethics,” in On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy, eds. P. Kraus and F. Hunt (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2004), 219.
4. KENNINGTON, “Analytic and Synthetic Method in Spinoza’s Ethics,” 218–223. LACHTERMAN, “The Physics of Spinoza’s Ethics,” 83.
5. René Descartes’s The Principles of Philosophy, in Spinoza: Complete Works, ed. M. Morgan, trans. S. Shirley (Indianapolis/ Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002), 117.
6. Kennington, “Analytic and Synthetic Methods in Spinoza’s Ethics,” 206–207.
7. Ibid., 223.
8. Ibid., 207–213.
9. Parens maintains that while Kennington does not mention esotericism, he too sees Spinoza as engaging in esotericism. Based upon Section 4 of Kennington’s article entitled, ‘Philosophic Speech,’ Parens’ claim is indeed valid.
10. The Letters, in Spinoza: Complete Works, 911 (Ep. 59), 913 (Ep. 60).
11. Ibid., 958 (Ep. 83).
12. Ibid., 798–799 (Ep. 14).
13. Ethics, 255 (EIIp13lem7s); 234 (EIp29s).
14. The Letters, 791 (Ep. 12).
15. G. DELEUZE, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, trans. M. Joughin (New York: Zone Books, 1990), 155–167.
16. Ibid., 163.
17. Cf. Ch. 5, ‘Spinoza’s Evolution (On the Noncompletion of the Treatise on the Intellect),’ in G. DELEUZE, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. R. Hurley (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1988), 110–121.
18. H. DE DIJN, Spinoza: The Way to Wisdom (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1996), 11.
19. Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect, in Spinoza: Complete Works, 26 (TdIE 96–97).
20. The Letters, 913 (Ep. 60).
21. Etienne BALIBAR upholds this point by contending that Spinoza, as well as Leibniz, espouses a theory of so-called ‘transindividuality’ in “Spinoza: From Individuality to Transinidividuality,” Mededelingen vanwege het Spinozahuis 71 (1993): 3–36.
22. Ethics, 267 (EIIp40s2).
23. For an interpretation that suggests that Spinoza’s philosophy ran contrary to the Scientific Revolution, see Eric SCHLIESSER, “Spinoza and the Philosophy of Science: Mathematics, Motion, and Being,” in The Oxford Handbook of Spinoza, ed. Michael Della Rocca (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
24. DE DIJN, The Way to Wisdom, 12.
25. For more on the relationship between Spinoza’s philosophy and the development of ‘deep ecology’, see Arne NAESS, “Spinoza and the Deep Ecology Movement,” Mededelingen vanwege het Spinozahuis 67 (1993): 1–16.

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