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  • Spinoza: philosophe grammairien ed. by Jean Baumgarten, Irène Rosier-Catach, and Pina Totaro
  • Steven Nadler
Jean Baumgarten, Irène Rosier-Catach, and Pina Totaro, editors. Spinoza: philosophe grammairien. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2019. Pp. 298. 25€.

Spinoza's Compendium of Hebrew Grammar (Compendium Grammatices Linguae Hebraeae) has not been well served by scholarship. Serious studies of it are few and far between, and [End Page 756] it has generally been ignored by philosophers, including seasoned Spinoza scholars. In fact, I am willing to bet that most people would be surprised to learn that Spinoza wrote a Hebrew grammar.

Even Spinoza's closest friends did not know what to make of this work, composed most likely in the early 1670s, just after the publication of the Theological-Political Treatise (TTP). When they put together Latin and Dutch editions of his unpublished writings soon after his death in 1677, the inclusion of the Compendium was apparently an afterthought—it appears at the end of the Opera Posthuma after the index and with its own pagination. (It was not included in the Nagelate Schriften, because—the editors argued—anyone who wants to learn Hebrew will already know Latin.) Later editors of Spinoza's works, both in the original Latin and in modern languages, have been equally ambivalent: sometimes the Compendium is included, sometimes not. There is one English translation, by Maurice Bloom, published in 1962, but it is full of errors. (Full disclosure: I am at work on a new English translation for volume 3 of Spinoza, Collected Works, to be published by Princeton University Press.)

All of which is to say that this collection of essays, deriving from a 2016 conference, is a most welcome addition to the Spinoza literature. The authors include philosophers, linguists, and intellectual historians (especially Jewish intellectual history), and the result is a well-rounded, multi-disciplinary view of a text that deserves much more attention than it has received.

The volume opens with an essay not on the Compendium itself but on Spinoza and language. Maxime Rovere's fascinating chapter, "Spinoza et les langues. Une approche pragmatique," is inspired by a brief remark that Spinoza makes at the end of a letter in Dutch to Blijenburgh: "I would prefer to write in the language in which I was raised, I would better express my thoughts" (Letter 19), a remark that has occasioned a good deal of debate as to which language in particular Spinoza was referring. (To my mind, it is clearly Portuguese.) Rovere is interested, however, not so much in the language(s) in which Spinoza was raised, but in the language in which he thought; and he seeks this both in the polyglot environments through which the generations of the Spinoza family sojourned and among the members of Spinoza's intellectual circle. His surprising conclusion is that there is no single language behind Spinoza's philosophy, but rather a "polyphonie linguistique" (44).

The volume's first set of essays on the Compendium consider it from the general perspective of Spinoza's œuvre and philosophy. Giovanni Licata, in "La nature de la langue hébraique chez Spinoza," offers a very fine textual and contextual overview of the Compendium. Along the way, he exposes some interesting differences between Spinoza's assessment of Hebrew in the TTP and the Compendium. Pina Totaro's illuminating chapter, "Le Compendium grammatices linguae hebraeae dans le contexte des oeuvres de Spinoza," looks more closely at the place of the Compendium in Spinoza's philosophical œuvre, especially how it supports his theological-political project in the TTP.

The next three essays offer more detailed discussions of possible Jewish grammatical influences on Spinoza's work. Judith Kogel ("Spinoza, lecteur de David Qimhi?") takes up the difficult question as to whether David Kimhi's Mikhlol was among Spinoza's sources; she argues that it is "peu probable" that Spinoza was directly acquainted with this treatise, and what he knew of it would have come through citations of it in Buxtorf's grammar and from the Mahalakh Shevile ha-Da'at of Moses Kimhi (David's brother). In his chapter, "Le Peculium Abrae d'Abraham de Balmes et la question des sources du Compendium...


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