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Betraying Spinoza


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The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity

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REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN is the author of Incompleteness- The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Goedel and of six works of fi ction. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she has received many awards for her fiction and scholarship, including a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. She lives in Massachusetts.


The fourth installment in the "Jewish Encounters" series-a collaboration between Schocken Books and Nextbook, a foundation for Jewish culture-this biography by novelist and philosopher Goldstein (Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel) begins by asking an essential question: "By what right is Benedictus Spinoza included in this series?" As Goldstein explains, it is problematic to label Spinoza a "Jewish philosopher" because he was excommunicated by the Jewish community in Amsterdam, and his philosophy represented a secular view of the world. Goldstein uses biographical sketches of Spinoza's life to put forward the idea that, although his philosophy did not echo a Jewish viewpoint, it was influenced by the Jewish culture in which he was raised. Along the way, the author presents some interesting ideas about personal identity and what it means to be Jewish. But these ideas are only given a light overview and never lead to any type of conclusion. This shortcoming leaves the reader confused about what to make of the arguments. Steven Nadler's Spinoza: A Life gives a much more thorough account of Spinoza's life as a Jew and a philosopher. Not recommended.-Scott Duimstra, Capital Area Dist. Lib., Lansing, MI Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

This biography of 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) may seem out of place in the Jewish Encounters series, devoted to Jewish thinkers and themes, because Spinoza denied the importance of Jewish identity, and Amsterdam's Jewish community expelled him for heresy. But Goldstein, author of The Mind-Body Problem and Incompleteness and a professor of philosophy, reconstructs Spinoza's life and traces his metaphysics to his efforts to solve the dilemmas of Jewish identity. The philosopher grew up in a community of Jews who had fled the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. As Goldstein argues, Spinoza's "determination to think through his community's tragedy in the most universal terms possible compelled him to devise a unique life for himself, insisting on secularism when the concept of it had not yet been conceived." For Spinoza, "salvation" lay in achieving the radical objectivity of pure reason, which dissolves the contingent facts of one's personal history and religious and ethnic identity. Spinoza's effort to live as neither Jew nor Christian nor Muslim was unthinkable in the 17th century, but his arguments for political and religious tolerance were forerunners for the U.S. Constitution. In this admirable biography, Goldstein shows that Spinoza is paradoxically Jewish, "[f]or what can be more characteristic of a Jewish thinker than to use the Jewish experience as a conduit to universality?" (May) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

"Beautifully crafted. What seem like separate issues--Spinoza's pioneering advocacy of complete freedom of thought in religious matters; the turmoil in the Jewish community; the fateful events in Amsterdam in the closing years of Spinoza's life; the philosophical developments of the seventeenth century; Spinoza's idea of a philosophical religion utterly purged of all anthropomorphism, even to the extent of denying that God is a 'person' in any sense--come together as if by themselves (the sure sign of a fine artist!) to answer my puzzle: how to understand Spinoza the human being, a man for whom reason itself was a kind of salvation."
--Hilary Putnam, New York Observer

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