Dutch philosopher wins Spinoza Prize

This video from the Netherlands says about itself:

10 June 2016

Professor L.W. (Lodi) Nauta is the first philosopher to receive the Spinoza Prize since its introduction in 1996, another reason to celebrate for the laureate. ‘I consider this to be not merely the recognition of my own work, but also of the importance of philosophy and its history.‘

The Spinoza Prize award ceremony will be today.

As Spinoza was a seventeenth century Jewish Portuguese Dutch philosopher, it looks a bit surprising that all other laureates so far of the prize named after him were and are non-philosophers. Most of them were natural scientists, including biologists.

Portuguese-Jewish-Dutch philosopher Spinoza

This video says about itself:


4 February 2009

Roundtable discussion with Akeel Bilgrami, Jonathan Israel, Steven Nadler, Joel Whitebook, and Catherine Wilson.

By Derek Wall in Britain:

Critical thinking: On the importance of reading Spinoza

Thursday 26th June 2014

The foundations of free-thinking and modern secular societies were laid down by a fearless Dutch philosopher who used logic to dismantle prejudice, writes DEREK WALL

I must admit that I am somewhat mystified by my favourite philosopher. Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), a Dutchman and member of the Jewish community excommunicated for unknown transgressions, is increasingly in fashion. However, he is far from readable and easily misunderstood.

I think that for a whole number of reasons his ideas are hugely inspiring especially for those of us on the left and in particular to members of the Green Party like me.

He is notoriously difficult to read and many recent authors who have looked at his work, in my opinion, obscure rather than enlighten.

Today he is seen as a prophet of radical green politics and as the most important philosopher to challenge religion and superstition.

Steven Nadler’s recently published A Book Forged In Hell is a clear and fascinating guide to Spinoza’s most controversial work — the Theological-Political Treatise. The very title of the treatise shouts out dullness and obscurity but as Nadler recounts its effect when it was first published in 1670 was explosive.

It is a materialist guide to religion that shocked the Dutch authorities.

Nadler’s book is a biography of the treatise and very much a page turner, a philosophical and political thriller, which demands to be bought, read and shared.

Spinoza was a political thinker inspired by the Dutch republic and the need to create a real democracy, which put the people — described by him as “the multitude” — in charge.

While he feared that the multitude might be manipulated by an elite, he has been seen as a radical democrat or even an early communist because of his opposition to hierarchy.

In 21st century terms he would have supported the 99 per cent and challenged the elite. He argued that God and nature, in Latin “Deus sive Natura,” were the same.

He was a materialist and felt that it was wrong to see humanity as separate from the rest of nature, or to see reality divided into “spirit” and “matter.”

So his connection to green politics is obvious. If we are part of nature, we should respect nature. Animal welfare has a strong foundation in his thinking because, while we are different from other species, we and they are part of a common substance.

Georgi Plekhanov described Spinoza as “Marx without the beard.” While I think this is a massive over simplification, Engels famously noted that Spinoza’s materialist outlook was consistent with a Marxist philosophy noting: “Old Spinoza was quite right.”

Marx read the Theological-Political Treatise and made detailed notes on it as part of his preparation for his PhD on philosophy.

Warren Montag has produced a very readable Marxist perspective of Spinoza’s ideas in his book Bodies, Masses, Power: Spinoza And His Contemporaries.

Nadler’s book focuses more on Spinoza’s views of religion which I find fascinating.

It’s fair to say that I am so taken with Spinoza’s views on religion that whenever I see a group of Jehovah Witnesses I can hardly contain my urge to proclaim the good news to them.

Whether you class him as an atheist, pantheist or believer in the god of the Bible, there is no doubt that he shook things up quite dramatically.

Spinoza was alarmed that religion in the Dutch republic was used to suppress free thought, with various churches and sects denouncing nonconformists.

Religion for Spinoza was intrinsically political, often used as a means of social control, but it could instead be used to promote mutual love and the common good.

Free thinking was only possible if the social control element of religion — based on empty rituals and irrelevant dogmatism — was exposed and rejected.

The treatise is an examination of the Bible that rejects all elements of superstition because superstition is a means of social control.

It is almost as if he went through the Old Testament with a black marker pen, crossing out anything that he saw as false.

Spinoza rejected Genesis — God was timeless and identical with nature, so the idea of a creation story, where God creates the universe is obviously theologically untenable.

Spinoza rejected the concept of miracles — why would God suspend rules of nature and perform tricks. This was undignified and profoundly irreligious.

Moses could not have written about his own death, so the belief that he wrote the first books of the Old Testament was false argued Spinoza. And on, and on — any suggestion that prophets had special insights or God acted, or appeared like a human being, was also crossed out from Spinoza’s Bible.

He seemed to have run out of energy, or at least marker pens, by the New Testament where considerably less is crossed out, although the various miracles performed by Jesus were of course binned.

Spinoza’s materialist and critical reading of the Bible has been seen as paving the way for a secular society.

He argued that the Bible was not the direct word of God but the work of human authors in a given historical context. If they distorted the true religion in their confusion, it was sacrilege not to throw their words away or reread them in the light of reason.

Nadler’s book shows how Spinoza’s critical reading of the Bible contributed to the creation of free-thinking, secular societies.

He argues that in creating the modern world, which values science and reason, Spinoza’s treatise was a vital text.

From religious tolerance to sexual freedom, Spinoza paved the way by criticising superstition and irrationality founded on the Bible.

Nadler also shows that Spinoza’s book created panic and provoked hatred, even in the relatively tolerant Dutch republic.

The treatise was condemned in the words of Nadler’s book title as A book Forged In Hell.

Spinoza was condemned, in contradictory fashion, as both a Jew and an atheist.

The book was banned and became subject to a trans-European hate campaign. Nonetheless in the longer term, Nadler argues, the treatise changed everything.

Spinoza rejected the label atheist, arguing that religion, politics and science, could be brought together, although personal belief and personal freedom to pursue philosophical enquiry were vital.

For him, once the constructed historical nature of the Bible was understood, the true religion could be pursued.

So what did Spinoza recognise as the true religion, once everything else has been stripped from the Bible? He argued simply that true religion was based on obedience to a simple moral principle of mutual love.

While there are always likely to be intense theological debates, the truth of religion is simple for Spinoza — if it promotes mutual love it is true, if it promotes hatred and repression it is false.

I think this formulation has implications for politics too.

Whatever its origin, politics that promotes human cooperation and trust is right, if it promotes inequality, elite rule and intolerance is wrong.

Spinoza can be criticised in various ways but he is a key inspiration for both socialist and ecological politics and should not be forgotten.

In his day — as Nadler reminds us — he upset people. The Calvinist Synod condemned the treatise as “spawned in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil.”

While his writing, inspired by Descartes’s geometric method, is tough and often uninspiring, the effects of his words make Spinoza continually worth re-reading.

Derek Wall is international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.

Philosopher Baruch de Spinoza’s birthday today

This video, in English with Portuguese subtitles, says about itself:

Spinoza – The Apostle of Reason (Espinosa – O Apóstolo Da Razão)

An excellent and quite accurate film on Spinoza. The scenes showing Spinoza reading/writing letters is very accurate. They picked two of the funniest of his letters, especially the one on the existence of male apparitions and ghosts. Those writing to Spinoza were Albert Burgh and Hugo Boxel. I highly recommend that people read Spinoza’s letters. There is some excellent philosophy in his correspondence, and lots of laughs.

By David B. Green in Israel:

This Day in Jewish History / Europe’s first secular Jew is born

Philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was banned by the Jewish community of Amsterdam for his allegedly heretical views on God and religion.

Nov. 24, 2013 | 5:06 AM

November 24, 1632, is the day that philosopher Baruch de Spinoza was born, in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam. The son of a family that originated in Spain before the Inquisition, and eventually settled in Holland, Spinoza was banned by the Jewish community of Amsterdam for his original and allegedly heretical views on God and religion. Although he never recanted his beliefs, he also did not convert to Christianity, and continued developing his philosophy, producing a number of works that are studied to this day. As such, he has been called Europe’s first secular – or modern – Jew.

Baruch de Spinoza (after his excommunication, he Latinized his name to Benedict de Spinoza) was the second son of Miguel, a Portuguese-born merchant, and his second wife, Hanna Debora de Espinoza, conversos who re-embraced their Judaism on their immigration to Amsterdam.

Baruch received a traditional Jewish education, but his formal studies ended when he was 17 and joined his father’s import business. It is apparently the beginning of Spinoza’s dealings with the world outside Amsterdam’s insular Jewish community that opened him up to free-thinking Christians like Frances Van den Enden, a former Jesuit who saw his own writings proscribed by the Church. Van den Enden taught Spinoza not only Latin, but also apparently exposed him to the rational thought of Descartes and to the concept of democracy.

In 1654, Miguel de Spinoza died, and Baruch began to run the family business, together with his brother Gabriel. Later, encountering debts he could not repay, he turned to the civil authorities (rather than Jewish ones) in Amsterdam to be recognized as an orphan, so as to be freed of responsibility to his father’s creditors. At the same time, he began lowering his annual contributions to the city’s Jewish community, eventually ending them altogether. These events closely corresponded to a lawsuit with his sister, Rebekah, who disputed his inheritance. Baruch won the suit, but later relinquished the family holdings to her, turned over the business to Gabriel, and took up the profession of optics. Around the same time, Spinoza was shaken by a knife attack, by someone who was apparently outraged by his public expressions of unorthodox views.

On July 27, 1656, the Jewish community of Amsterdam – its parnassim, or secular leaders, not its rabbis — issued its herem (ban) on Spinoza, whom it accused of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous acts,” and cursed “by day and … by night… when he lies down and… when he rises up.” It also forbade any other member of the community from having any contact with him.

Oddly, the writ of herem does not in any way specify Spinoza’s heresies or monstrous acts. Despite its harshness, there is evidence that Spinoza was given an opportunity to redeem himself before it was issued, but he refused the demand that he keep his thoughts to himself. Although there is no evidence that the municipal authorities had pressed the Jewish leadership to deal with Spinoza, it is clear that the Jews were a tolerated minority (they had only recently been permitted to settle in Holland) who were expected to remain true to their faith and keep contact with Christians to a minimum. Spinoza was consorting with non-Jews and discussing matters of theology openly with them.

After being banned, Spinoza left Amsterdam, and no longer lived the life of an observant Jew. Yet, he also did not adopt another religion. Although he moved several times, he spent the last years of his life in The Hague, where he pursued the profession of lens-making and devoted the rest of his time to thinking and writing. He died on February 20, 1677, probably from an illness connected to the glass dust he inhaled from his lens-grinding.

To this day, philosophers are still trying to categorize Spinoza’s teachings, to determine, for example, whether he was an atheist, or a theist or a pantheist.

Clearly, he denied the existence of a God who directly involved in history; his God was impersonal, perhaps co-equal with nature. The human soul, apparently, was not immortal. The Scriptures were written by humans, not God or his agent Moses. Since most of Spinoza’s works were published posthumously, there were likely more personal reasons behind his ostracism.

Almost immediately after he died, his writings were shipped to Amsterdam and published. And almost as quickly, they were banned throughout the Netherlands.

Spinoza and John Berger

This video from Britain is called WAYS OF SEEING (first episode) 1/4. John Berger‘s groundbreaking TV documentary.

From the World Socialist Web Site:

Bento’s Sketchbook—John Berger’s “Way of Seeing” Spinoza

By Kamilla Vaski

20 September 2012

Bento’s Sketchbook, by John Berger, Pantheon Books, 2011 (in Great Britain, Verso)

A reader has submitted a review of a new work by the well-known cultural critic and historian, John Berger.

The more an image is joined with many other things, the more often it flourishes. The more an image is joined with many other things, the more causes there are by which it can be excited.

(Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, Proposition XIII, Proof)

Drawing is one of the earliest known forms of human art. The cave paintings of Chauvet, France, dating back at least 30,000 years, reveal a high level of aesthetic sophistication on the part of their creators. The viewer of these images can believe that the people who made them had an overwhelming need to create such works, as witness and record of how they saw their world. Later on in human history, a basic knowledge of drawing was widespread among educated men and women, and it was common practise to carry around a sketchbook in which to capture one’s impressions, the same way a camera does today.

Cultural critic-historian and novelist John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook is a collection of stories, some of them simply vignettes, always connected to a drawing, either as the source of the story or the result of it. The “Bento” of the book’s title is Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza (November 24, 1632—February 21, 1677), who holds an important place in the development of modern Western thought. A Jew of Portuguese descent, he was raised in Amsterdam, living alongside distinguished contemporaries such as Rembrandt.

In spite of the comparatively liberal attitude toward religious diversity that prevailed in Amsterdam—a port city that welcomed people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds—Spinoza was excommunicated from his synagogue for his heretical ideas. He left Amsterdam, eventually settling in The Hague, and while making a modest living as a lens-grinder, wrote the works that were to establish him posthumously as one of the great theorists of the Enlightenment.

His writings helped to replace the edifice of medieval scholastic thinking with a rational vision in which all things that exist, including minds, can be understood as parts of a whole (“nature”) not influenced or controlled by anything outside itself. His Ethics, a remarkable document that he withheld from publication during his lifetime, was a refutation of the mind-body dualism of Descartes.

In the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, Spinoza dissected religious and political attitudes prevailing at the time, rejecting nationalism along with the concept of Jews as the “chosen people,” and asserted that the Bible was not a divinely revealed text, but one compiled from many sources. It was Hegel who said: “You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.” Marx was also without question influenced by his reading of Spinoza, though the extent of that influence has been debated.

Spinoza is known to have kept a sketchbook of his own drawings, which has not survived. John Berger engages in a conversation with the philosopher, imagining himself together with Spinoza seeing and drawing the world around him. Having written extensively about the meaning of painting and photography, Berger here turns his attention to the reasons for drawing, why it is important for humans to draw. Objects, people and events are asking to be drawn, to be described by an articulate witness who can interpret their meaning and worth, and pass it on to others.

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others, but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination. (Page 14)

We are drawn into a variety of settings, including Berger’s home village, a public swimming pool in Paris, a hard-discount megamart where employees and customers alike are trapped in a kind of managerial hell all too familiar to countless numbers of the urban poor. There is a humorous depiction of the author himself, an old man getting kicked out of the National Gallery in London for stubbornly leaving his pack on the floor while drawing a copy of Antonello da Messina’s painting of the Crucifixion. Ordered to leave by a member of the contracted security staff—who has no sense of connection to the art works he is there to protect—Berger loses his temper and swears at him.

There is a tribute to Berger’s first publisher, Erhard Frommhold of Dresden, who was accused of “formalism and bourgeois decadence” by the East German Stalinist bureaucracy and sacked from his position as director of the Verlag der Kunst…not imprisoned but sentenced to perform “socially useful work” in a public park as a gardener’s assistant.

After each encounter, we are given a quotation from Spinoza that captures the essence of the experience.

We sense and experience that we are eternal. For the mind no less senses those things which it conceives in understanding than those which it has in the memory. For the eyes of the mind by which it sees things and observes them are proofs. So although we do not remember that we existed before the body, we sense nevertheless that our mind in so far as it involves the essence of the body under a species of eternity is eternal and its existence cannot be defined by time or explained by duration.

(Spinoza, Ethics, Part V, Proposition XXIII) (Page 15)

John Berger (born 1926) has produced a remarkable body of work, as art critic, novelist, essayist, and writer for stage and film. His previous works include The Success and Failure of Picasso (1965, updated 1989), which presents a daringly critical view of the celebrity artist while he was still alive, and Art and Revolution: Ernst Neizvestny and the Role of the Artist in the USSR (1969), in which the author describes the artist’s effort to maintain his vision of the true social role of art in the face of official disapprobation and censorship.

In A Fortunate Man (1967, Vintage International Edition 1997) a photographic essay written in collaboration with the Swiss photographer Jean Mohr, Berger takes the efforts of a country doctor to articulate the meaning of his life and work as the basis for an exploration of the meaning of all human endeavour. Individual essays by Berger also stand out in the memory, including The Moment of Cubism (1969) and Ernst Fischer: a Philosopher and Death (1972).

It was the 1972 BBC television series Ways of Seeing, and the book based upon it, that established Berger as a public figure. (Many college students today are familiar with Berger’s name only in connection with Ways of Seeing, which continues to be assigned as a text.) The series was a response to Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and presented a critique of the view of Western art as it was set forth in Clark’s program.

Berger examined the history of European art from a materialist perspective, influenced by the thought of Walter Benjamin (whose essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” he credited as a direct source for his ideas). In one episode, devoted to the role of the nude in Western art, Berger forcefully counters Clark’s views by showing how the nude (mainly female) body has been commodified and exploited. There is also a delightful segment in which the views of children as interpreters of famous art works are treated with the utmost respect.

Ways of Seeing had a tremendous impact on art criticism at the time of its release. In the years since, the influence of post-modernism has had its negative effect. Berger’s presentation, eye-opening to many at the time, of how the Western art tradition is bound up with the interests of the ruling classes and of capitalism, has been dismissed by reactionary commentators as old-fashioned, even quaint.

Art historian Kenneth Clark moved in the highest social and cultural circles of Britain’s postwar years. And yet it is his landmark 1969 series on western art, Civilisation, he is best known for. What made this chilly patrician so keen to communicate with the masses? Here.

A new exhibition at the Tate Britain revisits influential critic Kenneth Clark. Annette Mackin argues we should reject his attempt to keep art in the establishment’s hands: here.

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