Renaissance and Reformation Baruch Spinoza
by
Matthew Kisner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 November 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0340

Introduction

In the history of philosophy, Baruch (later Benedict) Spinoza (b. 1632–d. 1677) is best known as one of the great rationalists of the 17th century, alongside René Descartes, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Nicolas Malebranche. As such, Spinoza is recognized for employing a priori metaphysical reasoning as the basis for a philosophical system that spans the gamut of traditional philosophical topics: God, metaphysics, natural philosophy, psychology, ethics, and politics. However, there is more to be said regarding Spinoza’s historical significance. Spinoza did more than perhaps any philosopher of the 17th century to advance revolutionary ideas that paved the way for the important collection of intellectual and social changes in the 18th century that are loosely described as the Enlightenment. These ideas include defenses of democracy, toleration, freedom of thought, and the secularization of philosophy, ethics, and natural science. Partly for this reason, Spinoza has also been an important subject for work in history, political theory, religious studies, and literary theory. Given the logistical constraints of this bibliographical entry, it will focus primarily on the large and growing body of work on Spinoza by philosophers, though important works from other disciplines will be mentioned as well. I will also concentrate on scholarship that introduces the central topics in the literature, though I will provide references to some of the more influential scholarship that is geared primarily toward specialists. I will also tend to focus on English-language scholarship, with a few notable exceptions.

General Overviews

General overviews are particularly important to understanding Spinoza’s philosophy, for a variety of reasons. His philosophical system relies on a set of technical terms that are unfamiliar to most readers. The main source of Spinoza’s philosophical system, the Ethics, follows a rigorous, geometrical method of proof, the sort employed by Euclid, which can be inaccessible and intimidating to uninitiated readers. Spinoza is responding to the events and intellectual debates of his times, though he rarely explicitly explains these issues. Consequently, some preliminary historical context is necessary in order to appreciate the meaning and significance of his work. While there is a great body of work that aims to introduce Spinoza’s philosophy, these works tend not to provide a synoptic overview of his entire philosophical corpus. Spinoza has the rare distinction of having written two of the most influential works of the 17th century: the Ethics and the Theological-Political Treatise (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, or TTP). With the exception of Allison 1987 and Della Rocca 2008, the overviews are devoted to one work or the other. Nadler 2006, Bennett 1984, and Curley 1988 provide overviews of the Ethics, while Nadler 2011, James 2012, and Balibar 1998 provide overviews of the TTP. Although all of these pieces are accessible, Bennett is focused less on writing for the introductory level.

  • Allison, Henry. Benedict de Spinoza: An Introduction. Rev. ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

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    While this introduction is somewhat older (first published 1975), it continues to be recommended by Spinoza scholars. It is distinctive in providing a more balanced overview of Spinoza’s entire philosophical system, though most of the attention is devoted to the Ethics and the TTP.

  • Balibar, Etienne. Spinoza and Politics. Translated by Peter Snowdon. New York: Verso, 1998.

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    Translation of Spinoza et la Politique (1985). Overview of Spinoza’s political works, including the Theological-Political Treatise. More engaged with the tradition of Continental philosophy, which is central to the secondary literature on Spinoza’s politics. Among Continental work, this is particularly accessible. Articulates an influential materialist perspective on Spinoza’s politics.

  • Bennett, Jonathan. A Study of Spinoza’s Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1984.

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    A classic, widely cited in the secondary literature. Although it does not pay significant attention to historical context, it provides influential analysis of Spinoza’s arguments and possible problems with them. Bennett is not always charitable to Spinoza. Pitched to experts and to more advanced students with prior familiarity with philosophy.

  • Curley, Edwin. Behind the Geometrical Method: A Reading of Spinoza’s Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988.

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    An influential classic, this book is based on a series of lectures. Very short (135 pages) and accessible to a lay audience. Curley’s reading defends sometimes controversial claims. Provides a balanced and synoptic picture. There is light, selective engagement with the secondary literature.

  • Della Rocca, Michael. Spinoza. New York: Routledge, 2008.

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    This introduction emphasizes Spinoza’s commitment to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which helps prepare the reader for the growing body of secondary literature on the subject. While it also covers the TTP, the discussion is mostly contained in one chapter. Light engagement with the secondary literature in footnotes.

  • James, Susan. Spinoza on Philosophy, Religion, and Politics: The Theological-Political Treatise. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199698127.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Like Nadler 2011, James has chapters devoted to the main themes of the TTP, along with the necessary historical context. James’s book is more concerned with the unity of the TTP and is somewhat more focused on an academic audience.

  • Nadler, Steven. Spinoza’s Ethics: An Introduction. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

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    A balanced overview of the Ethics, pitched at the introductory level. Focuses on the main topics in the Ethics, without the common tendency to prioritize the metaphysical issues from the first few parts. There are useful footnotes to standard and classic works in the secondary literature.

  • Nadler, Steven. A Book Forged in Hell: Spinoza’s Scandalous Treatise and the Birth of the Secular Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.

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    A pleasure to read that meets high scholarly standards. Chapters devoted to the main themes of the TTP help to highlight and delineate its most significant claims, while providing the necessary historical context. The footnotes help familiarize oneself with secondary literature in history, Jewish studies, and religious studies.

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