- Interpreting Spinoza:The Real is the Rational
in his characteristically generous and searching discussion of my book, Spinoza, Daniel Garber rightly points out that I structure my interpretation of Spinoza’s system around the principle of sufficient reason (the PSR). This is the principle that, as I and others sometimes put it, each fact has an explanation and is thus not brute, or the principle that each thing has an explanation. The ‘or’ will soon be important. Indeed, it might seem that I am too focused on the PSR—certainly I seem that way to Garber1—for I seek to use the PSR to unlock any number of problems that interpreters of Spinoza have faced over the last three centuries. Garber does a great job of conveying the range of uses to which I put the PSR in an attempt to bring Spinoza’s system under control, so I will not go into the details except to say that the interpretation I offer covers not only Spinoza’s metaphysics, but also his epistemology, philosophy of mind, psychology, moral and political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and, in a way, his account of human salvation. I also will not talk about the crucial two-fold use to which Spinoza puts the PSR and which leads to some of the idealist strands of my reading. Garber omits any discussion of the two-fold use, and so I will leave it out here too. The general point is that, for me, the PSR opens up breathtaking interpretive vistas that reveal Spinoza’s system to be coherent, defensible, and groundbreaking in unexpected ways. It is an exciting story, one that I was and am happy to tell.
Garber’s aim in his essay is to challenge my reading of Spinoza both on first-order interpretive grounds and on second-order methodological grounds. With regard to the first-order worries, Garber’s main points are that there is no good evidence that Spinoza is committed to the PSR in the strong—“no brute facts”—form in which I present it and that Spinoza does in fact allow at least one major brute fact at the heart of his system. With regard to the second-order worries, Garber expresses a preference for what he sees as a “direct reading” of Spinoza over what he sees as my rational reconstructions of Spinoza. His Spinoza is the [End Page 523] “real historical” Spinoza, whereas mine is an ideal type, a superhero but not the actual philosopher.
I would like to push back a bit against Garber on both the first- and second-order grounds. With regard to the first-order worries, I reaffirm my textually well-grounded reasons for seeing Spinoza as espousing a strong form of the PSR, and I also offer reasons for denying that there is the big brute fact that Garber finds in Spinoza’s system. With regard to Garber’s second-order, methodological worries, my main aim will be to try to characterize more accurately some genuine methodological differences between us and to stress that both Garber’s approach and my own are valuable ways of getting at the real Spinoza.
Before turning to the first-order skirmishes and second-order methodological love fest, I would like to offer two observations about the way in which Garber frames his discussion of my book and of my approach to Spinoza. First, at the outset, Garber compares the single-mindedness of my PSR-focused perspective on Spinoza both to the single-mindedness of Russell’s interpretation of Leibniz’s philosophy as motivated by his logic2 and to the single-mindedness of Bernard Williams’s interpretation of the Descartes of the Meditations as a “pure enquirer.”3 I am, of course, only too happy for my work on Spinoza to be mentioned in the same paragraph (or book or library!) as these classic works by Russell and Williams; and, however inapt the comparison would be in other respects, I regard Garber as correct in pointing out similarities between the apparently unified interpretations at work in my book and in these others. I would also say that many other works on historical...