Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Spinoza: the outcast thinker

by Devra Lehmann

I only had vague notions of 17th century philosopher Baruch (a k a Benedictus) Spinoza until I read Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain, by Antonio Damasio, during my period of fascination with neuroscience. Ever since, though, I've wanted to know more about him and his philosophy. I'm still not sure I want to go directly to the source and read Spinoza's masterwork, Ethics, because I like not being in school and don't want to feel academic. (I'm less intellectual than I sometimes pretend, or am sometimes taken to be.)

When I stumbled across this book, it seemed like a nice way to learn a little more without having to resort to reading straight-up philosophy. While I enjoyed this book, it's mostly biographical and only explains points of his philosophy as they are germane to events in his life and his difficulties in getting his work published, as well as the religious and political establishments' negative reactions to his work. I could have learned more about Spinoza's philosophy by reading his Wikipedia page. Even so, Spinoza's life, and reading about the cultural and intellectual climate of the time (1660s-'70s Amsterdam), is super interesting — and it's got me feeling a bit braver about reading Ethics.

The book seems really well researched, and the author is very clear about instances in which she's speculating how Spinoza might have felt. The writing is clear and smart without, for the most part, over-explaining. I was thinking the author might be a high school teacher, which would explain this writing style, and in trying to confirm that supposition I've noticed that this book won the 2014 National Jewish Book Award for Children's and Young Adult Literature. I totally get this being a book aimed at teens, and Spinoza's independent thinking, resistance to authority, and disregard for tradition certainly have some teen appeal as well.

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