Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By Jonathan I. Israel | Go to book overview

14

SPINOZA, SCIENCE, AND
THE SCIENTISTS

i. Radical Thought and the Scientific Revolution

In August 1663 Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society, and one of the closest observers of British and European science of the age, wrote to Spinoza, urging that he and Robert Boyle (1627–91), then the leading figure in English science, should join forces: 'unite your abilities in striving to advance a genuine and firmly based philosophy'—that is, an account of the universe: 'may I urge you especially, by the acuteness of your mathematical mind, to continue to establish basic principles, just as I ceaselessly try to coax my noble friend Boyle to confirm and illustrate them by experiments and observations frequently and accurately made.'1 Spinoza's notable absence, or marginality, in most histories and lexicons of science might make this seem a bizarre proposal on Oldenburg's part. Far more usual is the claim that 'as far as the natural sciences and mathematics are concerned… though Spinoza was thoroughly competent and acquainted with some of the best work of his time, he contributed little of importance to research and theory.'2 Yet there are grounds for arguing, as Oldenburg implied, that Spinoza does in fact have a special place in the history of scientific thought.

An accomplished practitioner of science himself, being a leading contributor to the development of the microscope before Leeuwenhoek, Spinoza's general philosophy was profoundly influenced by his conception of science and scientific method. Indeed, he would undoubtedly have been horrified by any suggestion that he and his philosophy are remote from modern science, not just because he spent much time experimenting, studying experiments, and discussing experimental results with scientists, as well as assembling microscopes and telescopes, but still more, because it was basic to his conception of his philosophy that his thought should be firmly anchored

1 Spinoza, Letters, 124; Spinoza, Opera, iv, 75.

2 Savan, 'Spinoza: Scientist and Theorist', 97; indeed, it is not uncommon to find still more negative
judgements of Spinoza's role in science; thus Maull affirms that while 'Spinoza's interest in experimental
science is well-documented… it was carefully bracketed from his larger metaphysical concerns' and that
'philosophically, as opposed to biographically, he was as remote from elementary “doing” of science, and
especially from the idea of learning by experience, as Plato was'; Maull, 'Spinoza in the Century of Science',
3; Gabbey, 'Spinoza's Natural Science', 146.

-242-

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