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  • The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study by Richard Mason
  • Willis Doney
Richard Mason. The God of Spinoza: A Philosophical Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. xiv + 272. Cloth, $ 54.95.

This is an interesting and provocative study of Spinoza’s conception of God and of his views about religion in general. In Part I (“The God of the Philosophers”) Mason offers an interpretation of Spinoza’s views about God in the Ethics. His interpretation, he tells us, will be controversial, as in fact I found it to be. Part II, titled “The God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob,” addresses Spinoza’s views in the Theological-Political Treatise. [End Page 628] Mason rightly points out that in accounts in English of Spinoza’s views about God, little attention has been paid to this source; and his book can be viewed as an attempt to remedy this omission. Finally, there is Part III (“The God of Spinoza”) in which he purports to set forth Spinoza’s “positive approach” to God and religion. After the accounts in Parts I and II, there would seem to be little room for further commentary. But Mason adds material about the figure of Christ and about eternity and immortality which are appendices to points made in Part II and Part I, respectively. (The organization of the book is irritating for there are continual cross-references between Parts I and II and Part III.) In Part III he also discusses Spinoza’s view regarding the possibility of choice in religion, and this is one of the most interesting sections of the book.

For lack of space—and also of competence—I shall restrict my more detailed comments to the account of God in the Ethics, i.e., to Part I of the book and note points that seem to me to be indeed highly controversial. In the chapter “How God Exists,” Mason gives short shrift to the arguments for God’s existence following I, 11, ostensibly because he is of the opinion that they were not intended to be convincing refutations of agnosticism or atheism. Two reasons are given for this claim. Citing the official demonstration following the statement of I, 11, Mason observes that this can hardly be viewed as “persuasive rhetoric.” A second reason is that for Spinoza atheism cannot be coherently formulated, and hence there is no need for a “real argument” against the view (21–22), implying that the argument he has cited is not indeed a “real argument.” This seems to me to be very misleading. The argument is indeed a reductio ad absurdum. But is Mason asking us to believe that no reductio is a real argument? Surely not. We may agree that the argument is not “rhetorically persuasive” and that Spinoza’s intention was not to make a persuasive case to silence atheists and free-thinkers. But it does not follow that he did not think his argument proves God’s existence and, incidentally, refutes atheism. Presumably for the same reasons, no attention is given to the other three arguments following I, 11. This is unfortunate as these arguments are extremely interesting and revealing.

A second objectionable feature is the claim, made on 25 and developed throughout Part I, about the “complete equivalence in Spinoza of God, substance, and nature.” While it can be plausibly maintained that for Spinoza these three terms do have the same referent, it is important to note that they have different senses. To begin with consider ‘God’ and ‘substance’: God is indeed infinite substance but Spinoza finds it necessary to demonstrate that there cannot be finite substance (I, 8). As for ‘God’ and ‘nature,’ there also appears to be a distinction of sense; i.e., God is nature as natura naturans and can be distinguished from nature as natura naturata, as in I, 29 S. Though Mason refers to Curley some seventeen times in the book, he does not elaborate on reasons for rejecting Curley’s view about the non-equivalence of ‘God’ and ‘nature.’ In his discussion of attributes, Mason refers us to a paper which he tells us contains a conclusive refutation of a “subjective” interpretation (46) and he...