The Significance Of Spinoza's Determinism
Prof. Dr. T.L.S. Sprigge
A lecture delivered at Rijnsburg on May 14, 1988
It was a strange and moving experience for me yesterday to see that charming but modest house here in Rijnsburg, in which Spinoza evidently began work on his Ethics and to try to imagine the very different conditions of life in which he formulated those powerful thoughts about human life which many of us still find relevant to human predicaments in a world which is in many ways so different from that which Spinoza knew and different in ways which he could hardly have imagined. And as someone who has been reading and puzzling over Spinoza's Ethics most of his adult life, it is a signal pleasure, as well as a great honour, to be talking to a group of dedicated Spinozists so near that very house.
Spinoza, it is frequently and truly said, is the one great Western philosopher since ancient times who presents us with a philosophy of life, a conception of reality and the place of man within it, which is meant to serve us as a personal guide to living and which has been found such by many people.
Among the many strands in his thought which serve this end is his commitment to an unqualified determinism. It still seems remarkable to many that it should not be thought a problem for an adequate ethic, but one of its most important foundations, that every piece of human behaviour is so completely determined by what gave rise to it that it could not have been otherwise.
The whole question of determinism and how acceptance of it does or would bear on our moral outlook is as living an issue today as it has ever been, and it is, indeed, one of the most persistent of philosophical issues, with most of the same alternative positions being repeated in different forms over the centuries, though I think Spinoza's own treatment of it has some unique features.
Philosophers have differed greatly as to whether determinism threatens ordinary moral conceptions and if so, whether that is a reason for being suspicious of its claim to truth. Writing in 1930 Moritz Schlick1 said that the whole question of the apparent clash between the deterministic principle that every event has a cause and the ascription of freedom to human beings, in the sense required for moral responsibility, had been decisively settled in the eighteenth century by David Hume and that the issue continued to be contentious only through a confusion between laws of nature which describe and laws of the state which prescribe.
This claim that moral responsibility and ordinary conceptions (*) of ourselves as genuine agents are quite compatible with determinism is often called compatibilism, and still has many supporters. But there are also many philosophers who reject it. To such philosophers it seems absurd to blame someone for doing something if one thinks that it was settled even before his birth that he would do it.
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