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  • Die Erklärbarkeit von Erfahrung. Realismus und Subjektivität in Spinozas Theorie des menschlichen Geistes
  • Michael Della Rocca
Ursula Renz . Die Erklärbarkeit von Erfahrung. Realismus und Subjektivität in Spinozas Theorie des menschlichen Geistes. Frankfurt-a-M: Klostermann, 2009. Pp. 353. Paper, €49.00.

Can one have one's rationalism and subjectivity too? That is, can one endorse a full-blooded Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR)—the claim that everything is intelligible—and yet regard experience of the world from a finite, subjective perspective as a genuine feature of that world? Many have thought not. Viewing the world sub specie aeternitatis—as rationalism seems to require—leaves no room for the arbitrary privileging of a particular spatio-temporal location that is often the hallmark of subjectivity. When faced with this apparent dilemma between subjectivity and the PSR, Spinoza—a good rationalist—simply rejects subjectivity, or so many have thought. Such an interpretation has thrived since Hegel, according to whom subjectivity and finitude vanish, for Spinoza, in the undifferentiated sea of being.

Much interpretive work on Spinoza over the last 100 years has been an attempt to save Spinoza from the clutches of this Hegelian reading. However, even though the finite in Spinoza has had many defenders, there has been no sustained effort to explain how Spinoza can be entitled not only to the finite in general, but also to subjectivity and experience in particular. Even worse (apparently), there has of late been a resurgence—some might say: a recrudescence—of a more or less Hegelian reading of Spinoza that has no room for subjectivity.

In these perilous times, there is more need than ever to have a powerful defense of the finite and the subjective in Spinoza, a defense that does full justice to Spinoza's attachment to the PSR. The times demand, in other words, a defense of the view that, for Spinoza, experience is explainable. Ursula Renz's book meets this demand exceptionally well.

We can, for Renz's Spinoza, make an experience fully intelligible by unpacking the representational content at its heart, and we do this by drawing on the subject's other thoughts and experiences and his full biographical, cultural, and physical background. This multi-layered and wide-ranging explanation of experience is Spinoza's holism of the mental at work.

In drawing out such Spinozistic explanations of experience, Renz employs Spinoza's account of conatus to shed light on the persistence of irrational emotions and on the ability of reflection (i.e. of ideas of ideas) to play a positive role in the improvement of our lives. As Renz says, "Subjective experience is explainable and its successful explanation is of ethical relevance because it makes us wiser, freer, and happier" (11).

One of the many pleasing aspects of Renz's methodology is her attention to textual detail. She operates with what might be seen as a "textual PSR": no feature of the text under discussion is extraneous or to be left unexplained. Let me give just one example. Spinoza says in the first corollary to Proposition 16 of Ethics, Part II, "[T]he human mind perceives [End Page 377] the nature of a great many bodies together [unà] with the nature of its own body." Here is Renz's explanation of that single word unà:

It's thus not a matter of simultaneity, but rather of a genuinely synthetic moment: we perceive external bodies . . . in the same act in which we perceive our own body, and we do this in such a way that we endow external bodies with the same actually felt and present existence that we experience in our own body.


This seems exactly right and, one might add, her explanation goes a long way toward explaining why, for Spinoza, such amalgamated perceptions are confused.

Throughout the book, as part of her effort to safeguard the reality of subjectivity in Spinoza, Renz believes that she needs to deny that finite individuals are modes that inhere in God (49, 58, 306) and to deny that God has ideas or knowledge (97, 119). Renz is, of course, aware of the many claims that seem to attribute knowledge to God (e.g...


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pp. 377-378
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