Sell Descartes, buy Spinoza

Prospect Magazine

Sell Descartes, buy Spinoza


Investors, take note: this Dutch rationalist is a hot stock

Thinking of buying shares in a great philosopher? The first question you need to ask is whether you’re interested in long or short-term investment. If you are looking long-term, then prepare yourself for serious scholarship. Alternatively, short-term investment could merely involve comparing the battle over women’s hemlines on catwalks in Milan and New York to Wittgenstein’s language-games. Investors must also keep in mind a philosopher’s obscurity, as this allows room for interpretation. Counter-intuitive shock appeal is also a plus.

These ruminations were sparked by the broadcaster Alan Saunders’s comment that, were he dealing in philosophical shares, he would be selling off Descartes and buying Spinoza. I was surprised Saunders retained any substantial Descartes, which for decades have been rated as junk bonds. But he’s onto something in picking Spinoza as a hot stock.

The 17th-century rationalist, who made every claim for reason that has ever been made, was for many years considered too insignificant to refute (unlike Descartes). Obscure, yes. Counter-intuitive, yes. But there wasn’t fast bidding for a philosopher who argues that there is only one substance, which can be viewed alternatively as God or nature, and from whose essence each and every finite thing, or modification, follows. (As being unmarried follows from being a bachelor.) Those of us in Anglo-American philosophy looked askance at system-builders like Spinoza, setting our sights on more feasible problems (such as showing why, precisely, being unmarried follows from being a bachelor).

But Spinoza’s stock has risen, his symbol emerging in varied markets. Take the movement which calls itself “deep ecology,” distinguishing itself from that “shallow ecology” which seeks to redress pollution and other practices deleterious to humans. Deep ecology rejects this privileging of the human perspective, arguing that all living things, including the biosphere, have equal moral rights. Arne Næss, a founding thinker, embraced Spinoza. Some might argue (I’d be one) that deep ecology misinterprets Spinoza’s deucedly abstract conception of “nature,” which has more in common with a physicist’s theory of everything than with deep ecology’s biosphere, much less with the Norwegian waterfall to which Næss once chained himself to block the building of a hydroelectric dam.

Spinoza did say that, when pondering the problem of evil, we err by judging the universe from the point of view of humans. Unfortunately for the brand of Green Spinoza, he also said that “the rational quest of what is useful to us” (in which he was entirely in favour) “teaches us the necessity of associating ourselves with our fellow men, but not with beasts, or things, whose nature is different from our own.” So it’s dubious that Spinoza would be chained beside Næss and his waterfall. Still, the movement’s use of him does point to his rising stock.

Today, we value any early modern who sides against Descartes’ dualism between mind and body. Spinoza not only rejected such dualism, but also denied the dualism between cognition and emotion. In Looking for Spinoza, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio expresses his amazement that Spinoza reasoned his way to the integration between thinking and feeling, which Damasio has now verified in his laboratory. There’s nothing like the imprimatur of science to increase a philosopher’s price-to-earnings ratio.

Another scientist who was passionately Spinozist (going so far as to write him a gushing poem) was Albert Einstein. In Spinoza’s conception of nature, he recognised intuitions matching his own, concerning the elusive unified field theory. Einstein also relied on Spinoza to get him out of trouble when queried by a rabbi as to whether or not he believed in God, averring that he believed in “Spinoza’s God.”

This introduces yet another reason to consider shares in Spinoza: the heightened public interest in the raucous debates between science and religion. Spinoza’s identification of God with nature, though as subtle as that Lord whom Einstein once invoked, makes an invaluable contribution to this issue—precisely because it’s subtle. As does his attempt to establish morality on the purely secular grounds of the scientific study of human nature.

Any other tips? The rising value of Spinozas indicates that postmodernism, which plays fast and loose with rationality, might be heading for a bear market. I’d advise short-selling Heideggers.

  1. June 11, 2011


    So we are still promoting the idea of God and as an aside we are downgrading Wittgenstein as a gamester?
    According to Roger Scruton the only remaining tenable arguement for God is the Ontological arguement.
    According to Nietzsch God is dead. Wittgenstein ,I believe, dismissed philosophy altogether.
    So where does that leave us? My hypothesis is that God did not create Man, but rather Man created God (or various Gods)to comfort him etc.
    As for Spinoza, he may be fashionable but so were Rousseau and his contemporaries in their time.
    Where to invest? Ditch philosophy and stick to science !!!

  2. June 12, 2011


    Let’s not forget about portfolio diversification. Shorting Descartes and going long Spinoza will require re-balancing. Some philosophically inclined brokers are advising their customers to accumulate Hume–and his stock pays a consistently solid dividend. Value investors may want to hold some shares in Seneca and Aurelius–if they’re stoic enough to cope with low capital appreciation potential. For more risk hardy souls, an allocation containing synthetic derivatives based on Derrida and Foucault bonds might belong in one’s portfolio. The utilitarian investor would, of course, turn to shares of Bentham, which can’t be beat for capital preservation.

    [Humour off] As an interesting aside, Spinoza lived during height of the infamous Dutch Tulip Mania of the 1630s. One has to wonder to what extent that environment tempered his thinking.

  3. June 13, 2011

    Ramesh Raghuvanshi

    Every philosopher created his philosophy with his subconscious mind.Really speaking philosophy of every philosopher is unconscious autobiography. So comparative judgement of philosopher is futile.Whitehead told us that all Western philosophy is footnotes of Plato`s writing.Every western philosopher draw a meaning of Plato`s writing in his own way.

  4. June 13, 2011

    Scott Lahti

    In its special “Books of the Millennium” symposium in 1999, The Times Literary Supplement of London asked several dozen leading humanists across England, Europe and North America to nominate one work or several fitting the brief. The distinguished French novelist Michel Tournier, who had lived for several decades in a converted village presbytery and whose most famous work expounded Crusovian themes, chose the Ethics of Spinoza:

    “Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was of Jewish Portuguese origin, but was born and lived in Holland. The sum of his learning is contained in the Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata, which was published shortly after his death. Other great philosophers – Plato, Aristotle, Kant, etc – can undoubtedly stand comparison with him. But none of them incorporated his whole doctrine into a single book. This is what makes the Ethics a unique monument in the history of thought.

    “Other paradoxical qualities help to make this treatise an incomparable work. It is a mathematically rigorous system in which are demonstrated all the elements of humanity: God, nature, man, knowledge, ignorance, passions, misery and happiness find their place as in a gigantic, sublime machine. But the Ethics is equally rich in profoundly human thoughts and admirable wisdom: ‘la joie que nous eprouvons a voir souffrir notre ennemi n’est pas une joie pure, car il s’y mele toujours une secrete tristesse.’”*

    *The joy that we feel in seeing the suffering of our enemies is not a pure joy, for it mingles with it a secret sadness.

    Tournier’s fin-de-millennium plumping for Spinoza echoed this contribution by the noted educator Herbert Kohl to a 1995 symposium in Mother Jones on the favorite character-shaping books of noted authors:

    “I’d recommend Spinoza’s Ethics. It’s enormously challenging on freedom, bondage, and acquiring spiritual self-discipline and a larger view of the universe. It’s calming. It’s silly–laid out in geometrical form. But every one of Spinoza’s hypotheses is a proverb that can be used for meditation. For example: ‘A free man thinks of death least of all things and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.’”

    The article on Spinoza in The Columbia Encyclopedia summarizes nicely the many attractions of the Ethics, suggesting to readers in an age like ours, long known for its desire to unmask the hidden logic and meaning of our thoughts and actions, and to expose the ubiquity of fundamental drives and the will to power, the better to overcome illusion and neurosis, the perennial late-modern import for us of this towering thinker from the early-modern era of the C17:

    “Spinoza’s ethics proceed from a premise similar to that of Hobbes-that men call ‘good’ whatever gives them pleasure-but they reach very different conclusions. Human beings, indeed all of Nature, share a common drive for self-preservation, the conatus sese conservandi. By this drive all individuals seek to maintain the power of their being, and in this sense virtue and power are one. But in Spinoza’s system power is discovered to be a knowledge of necessity. Powerful, or virtuous, persons act because they understand why they must; others act because they cannot help themselves.

    “To be free is to be guided by the law of one’s own nature (which in Spinoza’s rational universe is never at variance with the law of another nature); bondage consists in being moved by causes of which we are unaware because our ideas are confused. Another important feature of Spinoza’s ethical system is his view of the intellect as active. He rejects the distinction between reason and will that assumes that ideas can be passively entertained. All thinking is action, and all action has its accompaniment in thought. What accounts for action is not an agency (the will) beyond the intellect, but ideas. Ideas are active and move us to act; an absence of action may be accounted an absence of insight: knowledge, virtue, and power are one.”

    As those two powerful paragraphs alone suggest, it is small wonder that Spinoza would, if not in his own lifetime – he declined to publish much under his own name, and friends published more after his death – soon enough in the fullness of historical time, come to captivate a dazzling galaxy of not just other philosophers, but poets, dramatists, playwrights, artists, scientists, critics and psychologists, most notably in the early instance among leading writers both German (Goethe, Schelling, and the lion’s share of other rising idealists and Romantics), and English (Coleridge, Shelley, and George Eliot, who translated the Ethics). Small wonder as well that in our own day, a distinguished neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, seeking to overcome the Cartesian mind-body dualism that has plagued us these last four hundred years, devoted a 2003 book (Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain) to the fruitful implications to be harvested in re-examining, in pursuit of deeper truths in our own day about the connections between the body and the mind, – two attributes of one substance, as the master would say – that noblest of modern philosophers whose works will, as they have earlier readers these last three hundred years, outlive us all.

  5. June 13, 2011

    Richard Carlson

    While I’d never deny Spinoza, I hate to let go of my Descartes because of a market dip. Aren’t there any Protestants who look bullish?

  6. June 13, 2011


    Woeful!, as are the comments.

  7. June 13, 2011


    There are very few ways to reason your way into or out of dualism (reasoning is necessary for both) that won’t involve thinking along Heideggerian lines. The fact that there is no duality is a problem. Most major philosophers disagree about the response to the problem, not the problem itself.

  8. June 13, 2011


    fyi, Spinoza isn’t the only way to “ditch” Descartes. And must everything be characterized as economic metaphor?

  9. June 13, 2011


    I will buy some Spinoza, but I am not ready to short Heidegger, who seems somewhat consistent with the anti-Descartes position described here. Instead of the subject-object dualism of a Descartes, Heidegger argues for fields and experiences. This seems to line up well with Spinoza’s God. I don’t know all of Heidegger’s work, but this part has always seemed intriguing. I always keep a little Heidegger in my account, for diversification.

  10. June 13, 2011

    Matthew Putman

    Great blog. I have never even invested in Descartes (though as a child I did own a bit of Moses, and even some shares of Jesus)your book on spinozo has me invested fully in him as the founder of rational behavior that I now value asthe key fund in my portfolio. I think you are the best Dr. goldstein. I spent a Lunch with Steven Pinker, embarrassingly just telling him how fgreat i thought you were moost of the time. Thanks for the blog, and looking forward to the next book

  11. June 13, 2011

    Charles Frith

    A spectacular public baring of naked short bottom cheeks. Nice work Goldstein.

    Anybody want to put some money on a bit that field force takes over the empirical in the next 12 months?

    Rationalism is limping on extended credit. Every fool knows that.

  12. June 13, 2011


    witty article, but I disagree.

  13. June 13, 2011

    Joel Beck

    Short selling Heidegger would be a mistake. He was a creative student of phenomenology and, whatever else, a brilliant teacher. His readings of Aristotle inspired a generation of students, including Arendt, Strauss, Marcuse, Gadamer, Levinas and Jonas. Although you might want to short sell them, too

  14. June 13, 2011


    The author has it backwards: If you want to go deep ecology, then dump Spinoza and buy Heidegger (especially late Heidegger). The author may want not want to be chained to a hydroelectic plant but Heidegger would. Heidegger’s anti-technology rants and his meditative thinking (let alone his criticism of Descartes)are mystical musings about the value of the earth and nature.

  15. June 13, 2011

    Ben Murphy

    Readers of P.G. Wodehouse will be well aware that Jeeves, with characteristic shrewdness, invested heavily in Spinoza decades ago.

  16. June 13, 2011

    Lucien Aychenwald

    Vedic thought was dealing with monism at least 3000 years ago and Buddhists have known all about non-duality for a couple of millennia now. Supposed differences between mind and body and the “integration of thinking and feeling” for which Damasio praised Spinoza have never been an issue for thinkers whose traditions do not derive from Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Descartes. And the best commentator about our Western inheritance and its limitations comes from none other than Heidegger, for whom the “postmodern” tag is not merely intellectual laziness, but plain absurd. Goldstein doesn’t bother to explain what “postmodern” is supposed to mean or why Heidegger’s thought should be either in more or less favour in the future than it may be now.

    Most Westerners, including scientists and philosphers, are caught up in metaphysical confusions they aren’t even aware of. Damasio’s latest excursion into popular writing, in which he attempts to explain consciousness, is just one example.

  17. June 13, 2011


    This article raises my interest in Spinoza but along with one other commenter I would like to say – enough with the economic metaphors. They make this article almost unintelligible. Is the article about Spinoza or is it a vehicle for self-congratulation for, or attempt at the topic to the purpose of supporting, the purported validity of economic obsession as rationality? Either way, it’s fairly self-indulgent as well as not quite the perfect foil for the subject matter.

  18. June 13, 2011


    I agree with Newton. It’s like the author is unintentionally trying to prove true that capitalism is a race to commodify everything, including possible alternatives.

  19. June 14, 2011


    I would stick with Locke.

  20. June 14, 2011

    Mark Martin

    As a philosophy major long years ago, the ONLY ones who made sense to me were Hume,
    Wittgenstein, and the logical positivists.
    And David Hume is still my hero …

  21. June 14, 2011

    Iain Thomson

    I enjoy Goldstein’s books, but Naess and deep ecology were much more influenced by Heidegger than by Spinoza. Deep ecologists believe that environmental devastation is rooted in the presuppositions of modern metaphysics (such as the subject/object and fact/value dualism, which imagine reality as an inherently valueless domain separated off from, and so needing to be conquered by value-bestowing subjects). Heidegger’s inspiring post-modernism, as the attempt to get beyond those pernicious modern dualisms, should not be dismissed with superficial caricatures.

  22. June 14, 2011

    Alistair Mackenzie

    Funny article, and points out the Philosophy is prone to fashion and fads like any other human activity.

    I wouldn’t have said Heidegger was post-modern, but would agree the PM is due a fall.

    Desartes still a giant really – he frames the Philosophy of Mind question and I actually think he’s in for a renaissance when materialism hits the buffers (Dennett et al).

  23. June 14, 2011

    Frank Cook

    Christians take a cup of wine, but life is like a cup of mud – filled with Mystery, Uncertainty, and Doubt. Accept it. We are all just talking about the unknown and the unknowable. I am a mysterian, just like Martin Gardiner.

  24. June 14, 2011


    The economic metaphor of the article is gross, and the characterization of both Heidegger and post-modernism seems off. Spinoza has been worth reader’s time for quite a while; I see no need to wrap a defense of his work in such ugly packaging, to continue the awkward metaphor of commodities.

  25. June 14, 2011


    As a person, Spinoza was a jerk who betrayed his fellow Jews and attacked Judaism because he hadn’t the balls to alienate his Christian patrons by speaking ill of Christian beliefs.

    I haven’t read him in years but recall his great insight that carnal love between the sexes was a debilitating exercise only good for perpetuating the species.


  26. June 14, 2011

    Robert Landbeck

    Spinoza shares are just another unsustainable bubble waiting to burst. Dualism lost favour only because no one understood it and because humanity, and particularly philosophers, are too dishonest with themselves to look self critically at the nature of our species. It is the measure of philosophy, which runs on nothing more than ‘intellectual fashion,’ which makes this bubble, laced with theololgy, about to burst. The sharp end of a ‘bodkin’ is already heading for its mark! Don’t be down wind when it blows!

  27. June 14, 2011

    Barry Cooper

    Now if we can just get in touch with William James pragmatic spirit, I’ll alter my deep disdain for the academics who have tolerated and endorsed cultural failure for well over a century.

    My own ideas are on the website. I cite James as my intellectual father, and Spinoza as my grandfather. How to integrate them? By rejecting “hard object” ontology in favor of what I term “motology”. There are enduringly true principles, but how they are true changes continually.

    The actual problem the Greens need to be solving is not how to compel adherence to their quasi-fascist totalitarian agenda, but rather how to offer substantive cultural alternatives to the consumerism that was the almost inevitable consequence of their poorly considered rejection of the idea that the universe is connected in ways not explainable by reference to mere matter, balls bouncing into balls.

    Again, my views on a variety of topics are on the sight. I offer a vision for the future, a critique of atheism, and a philosophical support for the notion of Goodness (and Evil, as far as that goes).

  28. June 14, 2011


    One cannot say everything at once. Still, Buddhadharma without religion would have been on Spinoza’s trail before Spinoza.
    “Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of such a thing!” “I can’t remember things before they happen.”
    The bathwater has no baby, yet, or, steer clear of epistemology-without-object I prescribe. Don’t forget the bunting.

  29. June 14, 2011


    Internet commenters can be a humourless bunch, but you philosophy nerds here really take the cake. Yeesh!

    I’m going long on Arthur Schopenhauer and Clement Greenberg… that last one’s a penny-stock, and an odd pick, I know, but I assure you, it’s money in the bank.

  30. June 15, 2011

    Alex Leibowitz

    “The first question you need to ask is whether you’re interested in long or short-term investment.”

    Yes — I’m looking at a very long term investment — the long term, or the long run, as Keynes called it.

  31. June 16, 2011

    Macho Camacho

    what about insider trading? i can think of a few pragmatists guilty of this.

  32. June 18, 2011


    From James Hollis book,
    “An old Kabbalist saying has it,There is another world, and this is it.”

  33. June 21, 2011


    One strategy can’t lead you wrong: Buy/hold Wittgenstein.

    Like gold, real value endures.

  34. June 22, 2011


    Some of these comments are proof that fans of postmodernism have no sense of humor.

  35. July 7, 2011


    i would dare say that all are way over hyped…instead look around you kitchen at devices…a much better investment.

  36. August 11, 2011


    East is East,
    West is West,
    Historicism is the Best.

  37. October 24, 2011

    Nick Firth

    Goldstein is wrong to equate Heidegger with postmodernism. The Phenomenological tradition (as set forward by Husserl) – in which Heidegger was a student – is distinct from the likes of Derrida, Foucault, etc., etc.

  38. November 10, 2011


    Antonio Damasio expresses his amazement that Spinoza reasoned his way to the integration between thinking and feeling, which Damasio has now verified in his laboratory.

    to prove what? that lower brain initiates higher thinking? that’s for everyone with common sense to understand after our advances in last two centuries (Freud Darwin etc)

  39. December 14, 2011


    And, still it does not matter. The meaning of life found in banal arguments of nothingness?

  40. November 22, 2013

    Sebastian Orlander

    I will say that Hegel found two hundred years ago that the Spinoza-stock was very worthwhile. In fact, he found it so compelling that he attempted a hostile takeover. His notes still have his thoughts inscribed: “Spinoza+Time=Hegel”. I should probably add that Hegel’s understanding of norms and teleology probably got a good deal from Leibniz and Kant, which is also why he seems so mysterious to piece-meal philosophers. Then again, maybe there was a lot of insider-trading going on at the time, so people just figured that as long as they got something useful out of it, there was no use trying to compete on the open market.

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  1. Spinoza is hot! etc… – Ooteoote03-30-13


Rebecca Goldstein

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