- Essays on Spinoza's Ethical Theory ed. by Matthew J. Kisner and Andrew Youpa
In the introductory chapter to this collection, the editors point out that, until recently, most Anglophone Spinoza scholarship has been focused on the metaphysics and epistemology of the Ethics. But according to Kisner and Youpa, Spinoza thought that metaphysics and epistemology were significant chiefly because they are required for understanding the more important part of his project—the ethical doctrine developed in the last three parts of the work. Ethica was so-titled because it is a book about ethics.
In recent years, the scholarly community has begun to shift its attention to bring itself more in line with Spinoza's intentions—to focus more directly on his ethical views. The volume under review presents essays by fifteen specialists, most of whom have contributed to this re-orientation of attention. The papers are uniformly clear and well-written. All are solid; several are first-rate; a few make real contributions to our understanding of the ethics of the Ethics.
Questions of meta-ethical classification are of interest to several of these authors. Is Spinoza best thought of as a moral realist, an anti-realist, a naturalist, a constructivist, or what? (The editors, in the introductory chapter, have an excellent explanation of these terms in their possible application to Spinoza.) I did not expect that the (anachronistic) attempt to force Spinoza into one of these conceptual boxes would be a productive exercise. The essays of John Carriero, Michael Rosenthal, and especially Charles Jarrett convinced me otherwise. Discussing the view that Spinoza was a constructivist, Jarrett concentrates on those passages (in the preface to part 4, and in the Tractatus de Intellectus Emendatione) in which Spinoza speaks of our fashioning a "model" of human nature that we look to in making ethical judgments. Realists focus on the passages in which Spinoza defines good and evil in terms a thing's capacity to increase or decrease an individual's power. The anti-realists focus on the claim in the demonstration to proposition 68 in part 4 that, if we had adequate ideas, we would have no concept of evil (nor of good). The direct juxtaposition of a number of these passages is eye-opening, and Jarrett's skillful analysis is worth the price of the volume.
Near the end of the collection two brave authors venture into the dark waters of the final doctrines in part 5—the intellectual love of God and the eternity of the mind. Sanem Soyarslan invokes the power of intuitive knowledge—in which we "see or experience our being as a modal expression of God" (237)—to explain, with sympathy and impressive clarity, the "transformative ascent" that can bring us to blessedness. Valtteri Viljanen takes on the formidable task of reconciling the claim that the mind becomes "more eternal" when we become more virtuous with a metaphysical system "in which everything is fixed from eternity" (259). His approach requires a discussion of the relation between formal essences and actual essences which, while speculative, seems to me both plausible and very helpful.
Space limitations prohibit real discussion of a number of essays that deserve attention. Spinoza held that we are motivated purely by self-interest. And yet he claims that we should treat each other with benevolence and love, refusing to deceive others even when it might benefit ourselves. Steven Nadler takes on this familiar problem and offers a defensible reading. Michael Rosenthal calls our attention to certain structural parallels between the ethical and the political in Spinoza's system. He plausibly argues that the political can help us to discern the source of normativity in the ethical theory. Starting with Spinoza's correspondence with Blyenbergh, Jon Miller provides an interesting discussion of what "life according to nature" could mean. One thing that it might mean is "life in accordance with human nature." The notion of human nature arises repeatedly, and yet, as Karolina Hübner shows, it is hard to know exactly where to place...