Meaning in Spinoza's Method

By Aaron V. Garrett | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Method: analysis and synthesis

The method of philosophizing of those who simply look for scientific knowledge, without any particular question being proposed, is partly analytic and partly synthetic.

Hobbes, De Corpore

In this chapter and the next I will be providing some historical context for understanding Spinoza's mos geometricus. We can better understand the Ethics by taking account of some of the many intellectual currents feeding it. But it is important that one not view influence as providing a rigid map, as ruling out many interesting things Spinoza could have said. This is a danger in Quentin Skinner's well-known maxim: “No agent can eventually be said to have meant or done something which he could never be brought to accept as a correct description of what he had meant or done.”1 Skinner is, of course, quite careful in formulating his maxim as “be brought to accept, ” but the problem is in defining what this means. If in our case “brought to accept” means to rule out the assumption that Spinoza's theories should be evaluated as if a seventeenth-century Dutchman grasped quantum physics, this is, of course, reasonable. But, if it means that I should define what Spinoza was capable of saying in terms of what others said around him, this might have the negative consequence of stripping Spinoza of the capacity to say original things. Such an evaluative procedure also assumes that philosophers make complete sense to themselves and always know what they are doing, which is clearly not always the case.

Influences are particularly elusive when dealing with early modern philosophers such as Descartes and Spinoza. Many early modern

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1
This maxim is quoted by Richard Rorty in “The Historiography of Philosophy: Four Genres, ” in Richard Rorty, J. B. Schneewind, and Quentin Skinner (eds.), Philosophy in History (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 50. Rorty points out one sort of limitation of this approach, that qua philosophers we are interested in drawing out what a philosopher might have said in dialogue with ideas they could not access.

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