Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Philosopher and Writer

Why Spinoza is Back

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What the man Bertrand Russell called “the most lovable of philosophers” still has to teach us.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a novelist and philosopher. Her novels include "The Mind-Body Problem," "The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind," "Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics," and her latest, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction" (Pantheon Books).

In 1996 Goldstein became a MacArthur Fellow. In 2005 she was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2006 she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Radcliffe Fellowship. In 2008, she was designated a Humanist Laureate by the International Academy of Humanism, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by Emerson College, where she gave the commencement address. 

Goldstein has taught at Barnard College, in the Columbia MFA writing program, and in the department of philosophy at Rutgers; has been a visiting scholar at Brandeis University; and has taught for five years as a Visiting Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. In 2006-2007 she was a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and a Guggenheim Fellow. Currently she is a Research Associate in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University.


Question: What relevance does Spinoza’s view of God and ethics still hold today? 

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: It is surprising how Spinoza has really popped up again. He has been resuscitated, and I keep getting more and more invitations to talk on Spinoza, to publish chapters and anthologies on Spinoza. When I was coming up through graduate school and was a young assistant professor, Spinoza was really out of fashion. You know, he is a metaphysician. He tries to deduce the nature of the world through pure reason. This is very out of fashion and, you know, for good reason actually. We need science. We need empirical evidence. We can’t just use mathematical reasoning to deduce the nature of the world. However, the man’s intuitions were astonishing in so many different fields, in cosmology, in neuroscience and certainly in philosophy. His intuitions, forget the crazy arguments he gives for everything, his intuitions are being vindicated time and time again. You know but of course Einstein is probably the most famous Spinozist. He loved the man. He wrote a terrible poem in German you know that begins, “How much do I love this holy man?” “Words cannot tell.” It’s so there is something about Spinoza that inspires in many and certainly in me a tremendous love. Actually Bertram Russell calls him in The History of Western Philosophy the most loveable of philosophers. What is it about him? I should… He was not loved in his own time. He was excommunicated by his own Jewish community. It consisted of Amsterdam. It consisted of refugees from the Iberian inquisition, the Spanish Portuguese inquisition that had made it a crime punishable by death to practice Judaism and so his people and his community had been those who were Marranos who had practiced Judaism in secret. He was banished by them and then it fell to greater Christian Europe to denounce him and you know in the most vituperative terms possible. I mean he was "emissary of Satan." Why was this guy who talks about God all the time, one poet said he was God-intoxicated, why, you know, was he so denounced? Is an atheist? You know, in some sense I think yes, he is. If you mean by God something outside of the universe, outside of nature who created the universe, who lays… whose purpose is threaded throughout human history, who has a purpose for us, who lays down the moral law, if you mean by God all of those things then Spinoza denied the existence of God. His proof for his sort of God is in fact a disproof of all of those gods whom reign in what he calls the superstitious religions including his own, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. So yeah, is he an atheist? Well you know he redefines God so that it means something like the final theory of everything, the final theory that we won’t be able to get to. There is a kind of incompleteness theorem in Spinoza that we won’t be able to get to, but know that explanations go all the way down. The world… If we understood what the world was we would see why these laws of nature have to prevail and why the world had to exist the way it does and why it had to exist and that’s his notion of God. It’s really and that’s why a few string theorists have told me after they read my book, “Oh yeah, I’m a Spinozist too.” You know I believe explanation goes all the… You know that story about how it’s turtles all the way down. Well it’s explanation all the way down even though we won’t get to it because the explanations are infinite and we’re finite and that’s Spinoza’s guide. 

I think what… the reason he was so denounced was that his magnum opus is called the ethics, so he tries not only to you know this vision of the world that removes the grounds for believing in a transcendent god, but this moral argument that I was just giving before saying you know that okay we may not need God to tell us where the world came from, but we need God to be able to live moral lives and for there to be morality in the first place. Spinoza tries to ground morality. He tries to drive it out of human nature itself and that is I think a very, very relevant. We have right now finally psychologists, in particular evolutionary psychologists catching up to that intuition and also trying to ground morality on the nature of human nature itself, so here is yet another place in which this seventeenth century thinker’s intuitions are only being vindicated now.

Recorded on January 20, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen