In “The Problem of the Criterion,” Roderick Chisholm argues that Spinoza is an epistemic particularist. By this, Chisholm means that, according to Spinoza, philosophical inquiry ought to begin with a set of particular knowledge claims. Chisholm contrasts the particularism he sees in Spinoza with the epistemic methodism he sees in Descartes and Hume, who, on Chisholm’s reading, thought that philosophical inquiry must begin with a method for distinguishing knowledge from mere belief. Today, Spinoza is commonly read as an epistemic metaphysicalist, that is, as a philosopher who begins philosophical inquiry with a metaphysical theory already in tow.
I argue against these interpretations of Spinoza and show that the epistemic approach Spinoza takes in the Ethics is neither particularist nor metaphysicalist. It is instead firmly rooted in the methodism of Descartes. I show that the Cartesian criterion of clarity and distinctness lies at the foundation of Spinoza’s epistemology, and that Spinoza’s use of this criterion sheds light on how he understood the force and persuasiveness of his geometric method.