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Koistinen, Olli, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza's Ethics.

KOISTINEN, Olli, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Spinoza's Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. x + 323pp. Cloth, $95.00; Paper, $29.99--In the Ethics, Baruch Spinoza supports bold philosophical claims--monism, for instance--with some of philosophy's most bewildering argumentation. The structure and terminology of these arguments, as well as the geometric format in which they are presented, continue to challenge interpreters. This volume offers some help to those interested in taking up the challenge, but in many respects it is a reference work, destined for the library shelves, rather than a work of philosophical interest.

Unlike some of the older Cambridge Companions, this one is dedicated to a single text, dealing with the Ethics as an organic whole. The book opens with essays on the textual tradition of the Ethics and its geometric style; the other eleven essays are evenly distributed to cover Spinoza's ideas in the order in which he presented them. All the essays are brief and specific: the authors usually avoid the temptation to pontificate or generalize. The book begins with metaphysical themes, including discussions of the basics of Spinoza's ontology, specific details of his monism, and an affirmation of his necessitarianism. Themes in the human realm follow. Diane Steinberg gives a summary of Spinoza's nontraditional epistemology: her conclusion that certainty emerges only when a person grasps Spinoza's entire system helps explain why Spinoza's first principles are not self-evident. Three essays on Spinoza's theory of human passions are also worth noting: Michael Lebuffe attempts to reconcile conflicts in Spinoza's account and emphasizes his pragmatism; Susan James discusses freedom from the passions; and Martin Lin discusses the power of reason over them. In other essays on themes from the end of the Ethics, Andrew Youpa argues against a Hobbesian interpretation of Spinoza's "striving for self-preservation" and Don Garrett discusses Spinoza's idea of "formal essence."

The essays make careful reference to literature on Spinoza and are carefully observant of textual details. Two flaws, however, weaken this collection as a piece of philosophic writing. The first flaw is that the authors seldom respond to Spinoza's ultimate claims: although there is much painstaking bolstering of Spinoza's arguments, there is little evidence that the authors care whether the positions he arrived at are true or false. In some cases, obfuscation seems to have contributed to this lack of response. Consider Spinoza's words in the following passage, "We neither strive for, nor will, neither want, nor desire anything because we judge it to be good; on the contrary, we judge something to be good because we strive for it, will it, want it, desire it." This sentence clearly contradicts classical ideas and common sense, and Spinoza meant it to do so. Here, however, is the editor's comment on these words, "Spinoza is articulating the basic idea of his theory of the good, which rejects invoking any ontologically preeminent final causes in explaining human behavior." This restatement, with its reference to "ontologically preeminent final causes," is one of many throughout this volume which muffle the blows that Spinoza intended to deliver. Technical language dampens the significance of Spinozistic thought and any genuine response to it. Two exceptions to this trend are Susan James and Martin Lin. Both of these authors avoid over-technicality and, not coincidentally, show a genuine response to Spinoza's notions on freedom and on controlling the passions.

This collection also displays an earnestness that is not wholly appropriate to the text and author in question. Anyone who has seen the demonstrations in Euclid's Elements must laugh at the idea that the arguments in Spinoza's Ethics are geometrical proofs, and any assumption that Spinoza believed them to be perfect demonstrations is shockingly naive. Yet most of these authors are committed to making sense of Spinoza's demonstrations exactly as they are written. They labor to resolve the numerous contradictions in Spinoza's account; they take seriously the task of filling in all gaps in any given argument, but they do not inquire whether Spinoza meant these contradictions or gaps to lead to ideas other than those expressed at the surface level. Those who come closest to discussing Spinoza in more depth, Steinberg and Lebuffe, seem to hold back: they are content to provide detail without pursuing the opportunities their analyses provide.

Given these flaws, this Cambridge Companion is largely a reference book. A reader will find notes on recent scholarship, but look in vain for some principle by which this scholarship can be judged. He will find careful summaries of Spinoza's ideas, but little real zest for seeing or responding to the philosophical impact of Spinoza's claims. Lastly, he will find nuanced attempts to make sense of Spinoza's arguments, but no awareness of the fact that Spinoza may have intended some readers to pierce the veil of his unusual argumentation.--Jamie Spiering, Benedictine College.
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Author:Spiering, Jamie
Publication:The Review of Metaphysics
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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