We LURVE Rebecca Goldstein, but aren’t so sure about Peter Berkowitz

Without Rebecca, I, Baruch, would not be Spinoza-blogging with my dear colleague Bento. She is the writer who introduced me to the other great philosophical love of my intellectual life, the first being Hayek. More on this later, as soon as I have finished the Theological-Political Treatise.

Anyway, one Peter Berkowitz likes her too. I was alerted to this in my daily Andrew Sullivan browse. Sullivan himself is I sense warming to Spinoza — “no one has ever captured the intractability of the theologico-political problem like Spinoza,” he writes (he must know what that means, I guess), but his own belief in a providential god remains non-negotiable. Never mind; Andrew Sullivan is still a Fellow-Collegiant.

Berkowitz’ review is a curious one, though. He sets out to slay some dragons wholly unconnected to Goldstein’s book, by singling out from the get-go

best-selling author Sam Harris in The End of Faith and Letters to a Christian Nation, distinguished Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, and all-star journalist and irrepressible man-of-letters Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great (who,) are mad as hell about the persistence of belief in God, and they don’t want to take it anymore. Religion, for them, is the root of a great portion of the evil in the world. They decry faith as certainly false and clearly irrational, sustained today, as ever, by ignorance, obscurantism, credulity, cowardice, and, not least, the sinister skill with which crafty clerics exploit the all-too-human craving for the comforting illusion that the suffering and injustices of this world will be corrected in another. 

Spinoza, he believes, in the Theological-Political Treatise, was out to make the world safer for religion, to make the “suggestion that liberty of thought and discussion is good and necessary because it protects faith”, and “that religion and liberty are allies”. In the end he concludes, bizarrely to my mind, that by their contempt for all forms of religious belief and their intolerance of all its practitioners, Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens

put forward a critique of religion that renders the world smaller and narrower based on claims to knowledge that far exceed their evidence and argument. They do not respect either the varieties or the limits of human understanding. They are the ones betraying Spinoza. (my emphasis)

Spinoza as the friend to organised religion is a reading of his works which I do not understand to be possible. Personal religion and knowledge of god, yes. But to think that in his time this would have been viewed as anything but tantamount to atheism would be wrong. I think Berkowitz realises he may have gone too far too, for later on he throws cold water over the whole project of the Ethics. He thinks Spinoza’s”Presumption of Reason”, the idea that excludes the “inexplicably given” as Goldstein puts it, shows too much faith in logic. It makes a claim that there is nothing outside logic, that nothing is simply “just there”. This is a “flaw”, as it is a merely claim open to “reasonable doubt”. For Berkowitz it undermines the whole enterprise; “lacking strict logical necessity. . . Spinoza’s system falls short of its own explicit requirements.”

Now that sounds like a simple assertion which Berkowitz does not properly examine.  It should be clear to anyone the Ethics is the core statement of what Spinoza was on about, so it is odd Berkowitz uses what most people think of as a secondary text, the Treatise, to make his point about Spinoza. I believe it is because he has an inaccurate understanding of the Ethics and Spinozan thought: remember, Spinoza states flat out at the beginning of the book that there is some ultimate “substance”, which he calls god, the ultimate cause of all the “effects” which make up the world. That sounds like something “inexplicably given”. A “substance” is in Chapter I, Definition 3 “what is in itself and conceived through itself. . . whose concept does not require the concept of another thing , from which it must be formed.” The whole structure of the Ethics rests on this definition holding true, and that such a substance exists. And, as I have made clear before, if you assume that ultimate substance is the nature of logic itself, the ultimate rule by which the world and reality and everything works, we come back to logic itself as the great “skyhook”, in Dawkin’s phrase. In the beginning was logos. The circle is squared, system retains its integrity, the project is back on track. There is no system of thought that exists which does not rest on assumption; but insofar as every system of thought worth its name, and every religion that likes to consider itself a system of thought, rests at some point in its operation on the operations of logic, and cause and effect remaining effective, I don’t think we can find a better one anywhere. At least, you can’t construct a logical argument to deny it.

So in this review what do we really have? A reviewer concerned to get at a set of people never mentioned in the book he is reviewing. A misunderstanding of the philosopher who is the subject of the book, based on what looks like a selective reading in favour of the reviewer’s preconceived notions about religion, to enlist the philosopher and the book in a struggle against ideas they would be more likely to side with rather than against (I note that here I am imagining Rebecca Goldstein, but I believe her boyfriend Pinker is a Dawkinist). It’s not very good, is it?

 Still, I imagine we are both very grateful that Peter Berkowitz has chosen to write about Spinoza at all, aren’t we Bento? He clearly knows it is important, and it made me think. I can forgive him a lot of stuff because of that.


3 thoughts on “We LURVE Rebecca Goldstein, but aren’t so sure about Peter Berkowitz”

  1. Berkowitz’s problem with Spinoza is the same one Liebniz had — they just couldn’t warp their head around the idea that there is no extrinsic “prime mover”, that the mathematics that drives the laws of physics are part of the universe and not dependent on some kind of outside nourishing (and capricious) force.

  2. Well, I am not sure that that is Berkowitz’ problem. Leibniz yes. Berkowitz simply hasn’t read the Ethics, clearly. He has only read Rebecca Goldstein.

    Anyway, there IS a prime mover in the Ethics, as I make clear in the post. It is god, that substance Spinoza keeps banging on about. But I think what was different was that this god is not a nice one or a nasty one. Everything follows from it, but is not actively created by it. We certainly don’t need to worship it. Also it is not clear that in Spinoza World there is an act of creation at all. I am not sure I recall anything about that in the Ethics, any reference to genesis or the birthj of the universe. Do you remember? Am I wrong?

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