- Superheroes in the History of Philosophy:Spinoza, Super-Rationalist
everyone loves superheroes. superheroes, of course, have incredible powers; they can leap tall buildings in a single bound, excel in combat, and have X-ray vision. But, in addition, superheroes have a kind of simplicity of motive and focus that makes them pure and comprehensible in the way in which the people we actually know rarely are. For Superman it is about Truth, Justice, and the American Way. For Batman it is all about fighting evil: defeating the Joker, the Riddler, and other nefarious characters. For Spiderman it is an outsized sense of mission: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Superheroes are superhuman individuals, who have a simple philosophy of life that motivates their every action. Of course, there are no such people in the world. But even so, there is a certain pleasure in imagining a world in which such titans walk the earth not only to protect us, but to function as models for our own lives. As Spinoza says “[W]e desire to form an idea of man, as a model of human nature which we may look to” (E IVpref.).1
We are not immune to such myth-making in the history of philosophy. There is, for example, Russell’s Leibniz, driven by his logic to form a metaphysics in its image.2 More recently Bernard Williams has given us a picture of Descartes, who is obsessed with the idea of pure inquiry.3 And now there is Spinoza, Super- [End Page 507] Rationalist, a new superhero in the Superphilosopher’s League. This Spinoza first appears in the work of Michael Della Rocca, but he has been enthusiastically embraced by a variety of other commentators. What makes this vision of Spinoza so distinctive is his devotion to the Principle of Sufficient Reason—the PSR. On this conception, Spinoza’s philosophy is understood as the systematic working out of the PSR and its consequences. For the fans of this Spinoza, his project is one of pure rationalism, pressing the idea of the intelligibility of the world as embodied in the PSR as far as it will go, farther than anyone before or since. The sworn enemy of the evil villain, Brute Facts of All Kinds, this Spinoza offers us a purity of vision that has the potential to transform even contemporary philosophy, making clear the consequences of living in a bright and luminous world of pure intelligibility.
In this essay I would like to explore this reading of Spinoza’s thought. Though it is developed in a number of essays by Della Rocca and others, I will focus on what I take to be the canonical development of the position in Della Rocca’s book, Spinoza.4 I will begin with a development of this conception of Spinoza, and a discussion of the grounds for attributing to Spinoza such a vision of philosophy and of the world. I shall argue that as attractive as such a view of Spinoza may be, it is not the historical Spinoza who lived and worked in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. I shall argue that the historical Spinoza’s motivations are much less metaphysical and epistemological, and much more ethical and political than the super-rationalist depicted in Della Rocca’s book. Furthermore, I shall argue that while Spinoza was certainly against superstition and supported a kind of scientific rationalism, there is a brute fact, a fact for which there seems to be no reason, at the center of Spinoza’s thought that makes it inconsistent with any strong reading of the PSR. I will end with some methodological thoughts on the positive and negative roles that such readings of figures in the history of philosophy might play in the history of philosophy.
1. spinoza, super-rationalist
So who is this new superhero? A mild-mannered lens grinder, he quickly turns into an aggressive rationalist when he picks up his pen. Here are some of the ways that Michael Della Rocca, his devoted companion, characterizes him and his philosophy.
Della Rocca’s Spinoza is, first of all, committed to the intelligibility of everything. For him this means that Spinoza...