Spinoza’s Understanding and Understanding Spinoza
All philosophers seek explanation. All philosophers seek to make the world and our place in it intelligible. To grasp such explanations is the perennial hope and promise of philosophy. However, almost all philosophers expect explanations to run out at some point, whether because of the limitations of our cognitive faculties or because of the recalcitrance of the world itself which admits of certain brute facts, facts without any explanation. “My spade is turned,” as Wittgenstein famously says when explanations reach a limit.1 This admission is, of course, nothing more than a sober and, perhaps, healthy acknowledgment of our ﬁnitude and of the bruteness of reality. And, as I said, almost all philosophers reach this point. Almost all philosophers. But not Spinoza. His spade is never turned. Spinoza’s philosophy is characterized by perhaps the boldest and most thoroughgoing commitment ever to appear in the history of philosophy to the intelligibility of everything. For Spinoza, no why-question is off limits, each why-question-in principle-admits of a satisfactory answer. Spinoza’s relentless rational scrutiny extends far and deep. Far:
his gaze reaches almost all the traditional and important questions of philosophy. Spinoza offers powerful rationalist accounts of causation, of necessity and possibility, of the way in which our minds and our actions take their place in a world governed by strict causal laws. He offers wonderfully rich theories of the human mind, of morality, of political and religious life, of freedom, and of reason itself.
Deep: Spinoza penetrates to the bottom of each of these issues. He single-mindedly digs and digs until we ﬁnd that the phenomenon in question is nothing but some form of intelligibility itself, of explicability itself. Thus the causation of one thing by another is nothing but one thing making the other intelligible. Our place in the world simply is the way in which we are explained by certain things and can serve to make intelligible-i.e. explain-certain other things. Our emotions are just different manifestations of our power over, and of our subjection to, other things; they are manifestations of the way in which we explain and are explained by other things. For Spinoza, all philosophical problems bottom out in intelligibility itself. Spinoza’s commitment to intelligibility is extremely ambitious in
at least two respects. First, he insists that each thing is intelligible, there are no facts impervious to explanation. Second, he holds that these explanations are-in principle-graspable by us. Our minds are, of course, limited in some ways; there are limits to how many things we can fully grasp. As Spinoza says,